Tyson, who appeared on screen and in Broadway roles past what was her 90th birthday, left an unforgettable mark on Hollywood.
Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor whose electrifying portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in early Hollywood, died on Thursday at age 96. The icon's death was announced by her family, via her longtime manager Larry Thompson who provided no other details. "With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy," Thompson said in a statement.
Tyson, who appeared on screen and in Broadway roles past what was her 90th birthday, left an unforgettable mark on Hollywood through her portrayals of resilient Black women. The finesse with which she embodied women of great poise striving under great pressure may have had something to do with her own life which was strewn with obstacles and periods of tumult. According to The Washington Post, the star was born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood on Dec. 18, 1924, to West Indian immigrants who made a living through menial jobs. Her parents divorced when Tyson was around 11-years-old and she went on to live with her mother who forbade her to date or see plays or movies.
Rest in Power to a Hollywood pioneering icon, Cicely Tyson 🕊— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@africanarchives) January 29, 2021
She was the first black actress to wear her natural hair on Tv. She appeared on the 60's show "East Side/West Side" with a cropped afro. pic.twitter.com/S3MEO5ROwa
I am saddened to hear of the passing of my friend, Cicely Tyson. She starred in one of my son’s films –– The Road to Galveston.— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) January 29, 2021
Her talent was phenomenal & a hallmark of Black entertainment & culture. She opened doors for the many who followed her. She will be deeply missed. pic.twitter.com/HY3jitgJ6A
Growing up with a deeply religious mother, Tyson's life early life revolved around an Episcopal church in Harlem, where she sang in the choir and played piano and organ. She later became a typist for a social services agency. Speaking of the moment she realized she wanted more in life in an interview years later, the star said: "One day, I was just overwhelmed with the mechanics of the job. I thought, 'God didn't put me on the face of the earth to type for the rest of my life.' A week after that, my hairdresser called me and asked me if I'd appear in a hairstyle show she was doing. I did during my lunch hour and it was great fun."
She was beautiful... and I think watching her you wished you knew her and wished she’d give you the warm advice she gave when she played a powerful, loving matriarch. Every role she played you believed..😍 #CicelyTyson pic.twitter.com/W9Aprna53r— Lady Zamar (@Lady_Zamar) January 29, 2021
The show led to more modeling work and eventually, acting offers. While Tyson pursued a career in acting, her mother refused to speak to her for two years and only relented after seeing her star in a drama at the Harlem YMCA in 1956. "And when it was all over," Tyson later said in an interview, "my mother was standing at the exit, accepting congratulations. Can you imagine?" She went on to join the cast of up-and-coming African American performers in the 1961 production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, an anti-colonial drama that was an off-Broadway hit, along with Louis Gossett Jr. and James Earl Jones.
She received a prestigious Vernon Rice Award for her role as a prostitute named Virtue in the production and later again, for playing a hooker in the 1962 off-Broadway play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. "After that," Tyson said, "I was offered the part of another whore." She turned it down. These stereotypes followed her throughout her career as the entertainment industry sought to cast Black women in demeaning roles as prostitutes, drug addicts, and housemaids. Tyson refused many such roles offered to her, vowing to accept only parts of "strength, pride, and dignity."
So saddened by the loss of Cicely Tyson....A gentle soul, immensely talented and so thoroughly dignified. She brought so much life to the characters she played, and their voices...her voice...will always be with us.— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) January 29, 2021
Her uncompromising selectivity put her out of work for months and sometimes years at a stretch, even after her breakthrough, Oscar-nominated performance as a sharecropper's wife in the 1972 Sounder, a drama set in the Depression-era South. "I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman," Tyson said in a 1997 interview. "And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?"
Ms. Cicely Tyson. A pioneer and enlightened genius. Her life was one spent inspiring others. To have been in her presence was a privilege. Thank you for your light, leadership, and legacy. Wishing you and your loved ones peace in this transition ♥️ What a human! What a life! pic.twitter.com/zFKZLI5VXX— Bryce Dallas Howard (@BryceDHoward) January 29, 2021
Tyson also addressed some Black viewers' disapproval of the fact that Sounder was made by a White director and White producers, by pointing out that the film offered Black actors a rare dramatic showcase amid the likes of Shaft and Superfly that was awash in sex and violence and anger at the White establishment. "I cannot put down those films completely, because they allowed us to get our foot in the door," she said. "But all right, we're here now, and it's time that we said something else. Okay, so we have prostitutes and pimps and con men and pushers, the way they show in those movies, but we also have mothers and fathers and doctors and lawyers and teachers and politicians."
If you were in middle school in the 1970s then you saw #CicelyTyson as Binta Kinte in Roots and in the lead role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. These were iconic roles that powerfully defined our expectations of Black women on screen. pic.twitter.com/3kplYf6lwG— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) January 29, 2021
"Take a picture like 'The Godfather.' I came out liking that guy, but he was a murderer. Still, he was warm and loving with his family... He was a total character. But in those black films, they don’t draw the character. He has no life, beyond the way he earns his living," she added. In 1974, two years after Sounder, Tyson astonished audiences and many reviewers as the title character in the CBS-TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Her portrayal of a 110-year-old formerly enslaved woman who lives to see the civil rights movement flower, bagged her two Emmy Awards.
We are privileged to have had the legendary Miss Cicely Tyson lend her talent and grace to How to Get Away with Murder. She brought her whole heart to her role as Ophelia Harkness, just as she did to everyone she met in life. Her HTGAWM family will miss her terribly. pic.twitter.com/7t6p7zT1EN— How To Get Away ABC (@HowToGetAwayABC) January 29, 2021
Honoring the life of the legendary Ms. Cicely Tyson, a queen who graced the world with her beauty, strength and talent. Grateful for her legacy and for the chance to read her unvarnished truth. Rest In Power❤️ pic.twitter.com/To5i88D7ZF— Mariah Carey (@MariahCarey) January 29, 2021
Her third and final Emmy was for a supporting role as a strong-willed housekeeper of a Civil War veteran in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a 1994 CBS-TV movie based on Allan Gurganus's best-selling novel. Tyson capped her career with a Tony Award at 89 for her performance as a spirited widow in The Trip to Bountiful — a 2013 Broadway revival of the Horton Foote drama — became a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015, receiving the award for a lifetime of powerful performances in roles that shattered boundaries for African American women. The following year, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and in 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar.
In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it. She had a heart unlike any other—and for 96 years, she left a mark on the world that few will ever match. pic.twitter.com/JRsL3zlKtP— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 29, 2021
What struck me every time I spent time with Cicely Tyson was not necessarily her star power—though that was evident enough—it was her humanity. Just by walking into a room, she had this way of elevating everyone around her. pic.twitter.com/o6VAV63wqd— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) January 29, 2021
Determined to let only her work speak for herself, Tyson shielded the details of her private life. A list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed. Her only husband, by most accounts, was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, whom she had dated for several acrimonious years in the 1960s. She helped wean him off cigarettes, alcohol, and hard drugs after they wed in 1981, but their turbulent personalities and his infidelities led to violent arguments between the couple. They divorced a few years before his death in 1991. Of her career, she once said, "It amuses me when people say, 'Oh, my God, you've done so much.' But it isn't that I've done so much. It's that what I have done has made a real impact, and I'd rather have it that way."