Cicely Tyson, Towering Award-Winning Star of Stage and Screen, Dies at 96
Legendary performer Cicely Tyson has died at the age of 96. The Tony and Emmy winner most recently appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Gin Game opposite James Earl Jones in 2015. Variety reports that her death was confirmed by her manager Larry Thompson. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” he 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.” Her memoir, Just As I Am, was published on January 26.
Tyson was born on December 18, 1924 in New York City. Prior to acting, she worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross. In a 1974 interview to Ebony, Tyson recalled standing at her desk one day and shouting to no one in particular, “I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life. I don’t know what it is, or where it is, but I am certainly going to find it.”
She soon went into modeling, at first by participating in photo shoots during her lunch breaks or after calling in sick (she later joked that it was then that she perfected the voice of 110-year-old Jane Pittman). Though she found success modeling—including gracing covers on Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—Tyson knew it wasn’t her true calling and pursued acting, despite her mother’s religion-rooted objections. Her decision resulted in a two-year period of silence between the mother and daughter before reconciling.
Her early projects included the never-released film The Spectrum and the 1956 film Carib Gold. She studied with the director Lloyd Richards, and in 1957, she made her stage debut in the YMCA Drama Guild’s Dark of the Moon at the Little Theatre in Harlem. Before that, her only theatrical experience had been collecting donations in the lobby during a performance of The Crucible.
Tyson made her Broadway debut in 1959 as an understudy to Eartha Kitt in Lonnie Coleman’s short-lived Jolly’s Progress. Less than two months later, she returned to Broadway in 1960’s The Cool World. In 1961, she appeared in the original off-Broadway cast of The Blacks by Jean Genet. The long-running production also featured Roscoe Lee Browne, Maya Angelou and her The Gin Game and A Hand Is on the Gate co-star James Earl Jones.
Her big break on screen came in 1963, when she was cast in CBS’ East Side/West Side, becoming the first Black actress to appear as a regular on a series. She credited her choice to keep her hair in its natural style for the show as a catalyst for Black women to do the same, claiming she received letters from hairdressers lamenting a loss of customers.
After a slew of stage engagements and guest appearance on TV, Tyson made her first motion picture debut in the 1968 drama The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her role as Portia was written especially for her by screenwriter Thomas C. Ryan. Five years later, she starred in Sounder, picking up an Oscar nomination for her performance as Rebecca Morgan, a matriarch in the Depression-era South.
In 1974, Tyson starred in the small screen adaptation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the Ernest J. Gaines novel of the same name. Her performance as a woman born into slavery who lived to take part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s garnered her two Emmy Awards: Best Lead Actress in a Drama and Actress of the Year.
Tyson went on to receive nine more Emmy nominations in her life, including nods for Roots, Kings and, most recently, for her guest performance in How to Get Away with Murder. She won her third Emmy in 1994 for her performance in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
Following her film and TV success, Tyson returned to the Broadway stage in 1983 for a brief engagement of The Corn Is Green. She did not take to the Main Stem again for another 30 years, when she starred in the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful, for which she won a Tony Award. “I had this burning desire to do one more. One more great role. I didn’t want to be greedy; I just wanted one more,” she said her acceptance speech. She reprised her performance as Carrie Watts in the TV movie, picking up another Emmy nod. Tyson’s recent film credits included The Help, Alex Cross and the 2015 drama Showing Roots, inspired by the miniseries she appeared in in 1977.
In 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar at the annual Governors Awards. She was one of the recipients for the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2020, she was recipient of the Peabody Awards’ Career Achievement Award.
Tyson was married to jazz musician Miles Davis from 1981 to 1988. She was the last living member of her immediate family.