Cicely Tyson an iconic figure on the stage, on the silver screen and on the television screen, has passed away on Thursday, January 28, 2021 at the age of 96 according to The New York Times. Her portrayal of strong black women shattered Hollywood’s stereotypical casting for young women in America’s civil rights era. Gaining stardom and fame only fueled her fire to champion for more powerful roles.
Her death was announced by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson who according to The New York Times provided no further detail.
Born in Harlem NYC in 1924, Tyson’s first acting role was in NBC’s 1951 faith based show Frontiers of Faith according to a CBS Sacremento profile on the late actress. Reported in an A+E Television Network biography, her first breakthrough came in 1963 when she starred in CBS’ East Side/West Side as the first African American on the critically acclaimed show.
Tyson’s face has graced the covers of magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Essence. She was a vegetarian and in 1972 she was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her portal of Rebecca Smith in the film Sonder. It was in 1974 the she picked up the Emmy for Best Lead Actress for her portrayal of the title role in the Television movie/miniseries The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Adapted from the Ernest J. Gaines novel of the same title, its the story of Miss Pittman’s life from being born into American slavery. Surviving to tell her story at 110 and dying just before the civil rights movement.
“Cicely Tyson transforms that role into the kind of event for which awards are made,” John J. O’Connor wrote in The Times, citing her passage from young innocence through cycles of age and maturity to shriveled, knowing antiquity. “She absorbs herself completely into Miss Jane, in the process creating a marvelous blend of sly humor, shrewd perceptions and innate dignity.”
According to NYT, Ms. Tyson went on to play roles in notable television shows like Kunta Kinte’s mother in Alex Haley’s Television Movie Roots (1977), Coretta Scott King wife of Rev Martin Luther King Jr. in NBC’s mini series King (1978), Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses (1978), a Chicago teacher devoted to helping the underserved youth in The Marva Collins Story (1981), and won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Castalia in the miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994).
Ms. Tyson was married twice. She married her first husband Kenneth Franklin, in 1942 and they divorced in 1956. Her second husband was famed jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. The two married in 1981 but finalized their divorce in 1989 according to NYT.
The Emmy winning actress has appeared in least 68 television series/mini series/and single episodes including ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder as Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) mother. The late Hollywood icon has made a career out of being in front of the camera but never forgot her theatre roots. Ms Tyson returned to the Broadway stage in 2013 starring opposite Vanessa Williams in Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful.
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“She’s our Meryl Streep,” Vanessa Williams told Essence in 2013. “She was the person you wanted to be like in terms of an actress, in terms of the roles she got and how serious she took her craft. She still is.”
In 2016 President Barack Obama awarded Ms. Tyson with the nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. In November 2018, just before her 94 birthday she received an honorary Oscar, a Governors Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In her speech she paid tribute to her mother who opposed her plan for a career as an entertainer.
“@TheAmandaGorman, your words remind us that we will rise, rebuild, reconcile and recover. Thank you for your words and light.” CT
— Cicely Tyson (@IAmCicelyTyson) January 27, 2021
One of her final tweets gave accolades to the young poet Amanda Gorman who read her poem at President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2021 Inauguration. Her last tweet read she was “excited” about her new book. A memoir about her her long and extraordinary career titled Just As I Am published by Harper Collins. The book went on sale at Harper Collins Publishing’s website January 26, 2021.
Excited to see my book, #JustAsIAm, on @BookSparks 2021 Winter Reading Challenge – Let’s kickoff the new year with this winter’s hottest books! #WRC2021 https://t.co/7w4oDP6Bvl pic.twitter.com/aDzRtnz0UZ
— Cicely Tyson (@IAmCicelyTyson) January 28, 2021