Cicely Tyson, Acting Legend and Stereotype-Shattering Icon, Dead at 96
The legendary Cicely Tyson has died at 96.
Tyson died Thursday, as reported by The Wrap and confirmed by her longtime manager Larry Thompson in a statement from her family that read, "With a heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy."
No cause or other details of her passing were provided.
For decades, Tyson had been an icon in entertainment, having achieved success onstage, on TV, and in the movies, and having embraced her status as a role model for Black women in an industry notoriously unwelcoming to them.
Tyson's entire career was spent eschewing parts she deemed to be demeaning to Black people, a decision she urged her peers to make.
"Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride, and dignity," she said in 1972.
In January, Tyson told The New York Times about death, "I'm not scared of death. I don't know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don't know anything about?... I've not been there. I'm not in a hurry to go, either! I take it a day at a time... and I'm grateful for every day that God gives me."
Never one to rest, Tyson had been scheduled for an appearance on "LIVE with Kelly and Ryan" Friday, the day after her death. The pre-taped interview is airing as planned.
Born December 19, 1924, in New York City's Harlem, she was a model for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue in the '50s. More importantly for her story, she appeared in Ebony and Jet magazines, and would come to be known as a Black woman who unapologetically wore her hair in African styles, an early booster of the Afro.
The cover of her 2021 memoir makes use of one of her early modeling images, showing Tyson's head shaved. Its title? "Just As I Am."
After studying at the Actors Studio in the 1940s, she made her TV debut on "Frontiers of Faith" (1951) and her movie debut in "Carib Gold" (1957). Among Ms. Tyson's many "firsts," she was the first Black actor to star in a TV drama, via her role on "East Side/West Side" (1963-1964).
She acted for many years in small TV roles — including guest spots on such series as "Naked City" (1963), "Guiding Light" (1966), "I Spy" (1965 & 1966), "The F.B.I." (1968 & 1969), and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1969) — and in several films, including landing a featured part in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" (1968), before her big break, playing Rebecca Morgan in the acclaimed film "Sounder" (1972), adapted from the Newberry Medal-winning novel by William H. Armstrong. Her performance was transcendent, earning Tyson Golden Globe and Oscar nominations as she neared her fiftieth birthday. Strategically, she kept her true age a secret until her second wind was much further along.
In 1974, Tyson won not one but two Emmys for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," a TV movie in which her character, a former slave, ages from 23 to 110, bridging history from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.
All the while Tyson was adding to her impressive array of TV and film credits, she was busy doing the same in New York theater. In 1961, she was in the original production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks," alongside Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. It became the city's longest-running off-Broadway non-musical, and Tyson stuck with it for two solid years — walking away with her first major honor, a Vernon Rice Award, in 1962.
Tyson's work in TV movies and miniseries was searing, and often informed by a literary or historical heft. She was Binta on the groundbreaking miniseries event "Roots" (1977), garnering another Emmy nomination, and played Coretta Scott King on the miniseries "King" (1978), also good for a nod. In quick succession, she played Harriet Tubman in "A Woman Called Moses" (1978), and also starred in "The Marva Collins Story" (1981), "The Women of Brewster Place" (1989), and "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" (1994), continuing to establish a career built on positive portrayals of gutsy Black women.
On TV, she was a series regular on "Sweet Justice" (1994-1995), playing a civil rights activist and lawyer, received multiple Emmy nominations for her performance as Ophelia Harkness on "How to Get Away with Murder" (2015-2020), and appeared on seven episodes of Ava DuVernay's OWN series "Cherish the Day" (2020).
Among her other feature films, Tyson graced "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), "Hoodlum" (1997), "Because of Winn-Dixie" (2005), "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (2005), "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006), and "The Help" (2011).
By then a living legend, she appeared in Willow Smith's music video for "21st Century Girl," having been both a 20th and 21st century woman herself.
Tyson's career never ceased to unfold, and a return to stage work after a 30-year absence brought her a Tony in 2013 for "The Trip to Bountiful." She was the oldest person — 88 — to win a Best Actress Tony, and was also honored with a Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for her take on Miss Carrie Watts in the Horton Foote classic.
Her dramatic purple gown by B. Michael that evening was the talk of the Tonys red carpet.
"When I think of the moment where I stand before you — this moment — I can not help but remember all of the thumbprints that have touched this being during the course of her career," she said during her acceptance speech, thanking her late family members and noting she had "asked over and over again" why she was the sole survivor. "I now know why," she said.
Family life in general had eluded Tyson. Pregnant at 17, her youthful marriage to Kenneth Franklin was, according to her memoir, forced. It ended in divorce. Her '80s marriage to jazz icon Miles Davis ("Who's that?" she joked when asked about him in 2021) also ended in divorce. She has written that her relationship with her secret daughter, referred to as "Joan" in her memoir, is "as fragile as it is precious." She raised her completely out of the spotlight.
Among Tyson's countless honors and citations, she won three competitive Emmys, was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, in 2018 was the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar for her contributions to cinema, was given a lifetime-achievement Peabody Award, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame.
Tyson's final film was a popular Netflix drama by Tyler Perry, "A Fall from Grace" (2020), but even when she wasn't working, she was making her presence known, as on a viral appearance on "The Talk" in February 2020, on which she turned heads with her ageless, fashion-forward look.
In fact, one of her most striking poses ever, shot by Djeneba Aduayom, was for a 2019 Time magazine cover. For the special "Optimists" issue, edited by Ava DuVernay, Tyson peered out from the cover, awash in regal red. Inside, she said, "I am the sum total of each of the women I have played."