Emmy-winning screen and stage icon Cicely Tyson, who distinguished herself by performing electrifying portrayals of Black women as a pioneering Black actress, has died.
Tyson’s family made the announcement through her manager Larry Thompson. Tyson passed away in the afternoon hours of Thursday, Jan. 28. No details were immediately provided. She was 96 years old.
“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.
A ground-breaking actress who began to gain fame in the 1970s at a time when Black women were just beginning to play starring roles onscreen, Tyson won two Emmys for her portrayal of a former slave in the 1974 television film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in what was one of her most acclaimed performances.
The New York native was born on Dec. 18, 1924, to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Nevis and raised in a devoutly religious household in Harlem. Her acting career began with a few stage roles in the mid-1950s after she had turned to modeling when she tired of her early job as a typist.
When Tyson appeared in the off-broadway play “The Blacks” with Louis Gossett Jr. and James Earl Jones in 1961, she attracted the notice of actor George C. Scott, who obtained for her a role as his secretary in his 1963 CBS show “East Side/West Side,” the first continuing TV role in her career. That role came to an end after two seasons, and her career continued slowly for almost another decade until her breakout performance in the 1972 film “Sounder.” Her powerful performance opposite Paul Winfield as a sharecropper’s wife earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Tyson, who would switch effortlessly from film to television to stage throughout her career, won a Tony Award in 2013 for her starring role in a revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,”
“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 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.”
During her career, Tyson refused to play roles that she thought were demeaning to Black women, including portrayals of drug addicts, prostitutes and maids.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.
According to many accounts, Tyson was the first Black woman to appear on television with natural hair.
In 2016, Tyson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama.
“Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family,” Obama said at the ceremony.
Tyson has also portrayed abolitionist Harriet Tubman and civil rights activist Coretta Scott King on television.
Tyson’s memoir “Just As I Am” was published just two days prior to her death, and recounts her extraordinary seven-decade-long career.
“Whenever I’m offered a script, what I’m interested in when I get it is ‘Why me? Who is that character and why did they want me to play it?’” Tyson told Gayle King earlier this week while discussing her new book. “And I get to the point where I feel like her skin has fitted my own.”
“I’m amazed every single day I live. … What my life became is not what I expected. I had no idea that I would touch anybody.”
When King asked Tyson how she wanted to be remembered, the icon replied, “I’ve done my best.”
Reports on Tyson’s death at the time of this writing were vague about her survivors, as she was very protective of her private life and was only known to have been married once, to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.