Cicely Tyson, the trailblazing actress died whose career spanned more than six decades, died Thursday afternoon, her manager Larry Thompson confirmed. She was 96.
From the start of her career, Tyson resolved to portray strong, positive, and realistic images of black women onscreen, and for many, she represented an enduring strength. Tyson received an Oscar nomination in 1973 for Martin Ritt’s drama Sounder (and was finally given an honorary Oscar in 2018), and became famous to a wider audience for her starring role in the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she played the 110-year-old woman recalling her life, which required her to portray the character over nine decades. She was in the original, 1961 off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and, decades later, won a Tony for The Trip to Bountiful (2013). In recent years, Tyson earned five Emmy nominations for ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, playing Ophelia, the mother to Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson said in a statement. “Cicely thought of her new memoir [Just As I Am] as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”
Tyson made her film debut with a small role in 1957’s Twelve Angry Men, and was featured in the 1959 Sidney Poitier film Odds Against Tomorrow, followed by The Comedians, The Last Angry Man, A Man Called Adam, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. But it was her TV work that won her many fans, including unforgettable moments in Roots, The Women of Brewster Place, and The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
She married the jazz legend Miles Davis in 1981 at the Massachusetts home of Bill and Camille Cosby. They had a tumultuous relationship, and divorced in 1989. In Just As I Am, she was unflinching in her honesty, and she shared her conflicted feelings about the trumpeter in a recent interview: “I got to know the soul of a man who is as gentle as a lamb. He covered it up with this ruthless attitude because he was so shy. Shy, you hear me? And in trying to be the kind of tough person that people thought he was, he ruined his life. Yes, gentle as a lamb, you hear me? That’s the Miles Davis I knew.”
Thanks to Tyler Perry, as Variety notes, she did more film work in her seventies than at any other time in her career, appearing in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010). Tyson also had supporting roles in Because of Winn-Dixie, Fat Rose and Squeaky, Idlewild, and the 2011 hit The Help.
In a 1974 response criticizing the New York Times review of Miss Jane Pittman, the poet Nikki Giovanni wrote that the movie “fulfilled my deepest expectations,” adding: “If Cicely Tyson isn’t one of the best actresses on screen, then ‘grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man,’ to quote Little Willie John. … From the moment she came on screen to that last magnificent panorama with Jane walking her fields, Miss Tyson never stepped out of character.”
“Every character that I have ever played is an individual unto themselves,” Tyson told Gold Derby in 2020. “Every single one of them. I don’t even think about them. They are individuals, and that’s why I choose them, ‘cause they are different, each one, and that’s the challenge for me, to make you see this person as someone that you have never met before. That’s what excites me when I read a script. When I read a script, one of two things happen to me. Either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know I can’t do this thing, and I can pass it very easily. I don’t care how much they offer me, I can’t do it. Now, when my skin tingles and I can’t be still, that’s mine.”
Speaking to the New York Times earlier this month, Tyson spoke of her feelings about death. “I’m not scared of death,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about?”