Trailblazing Hollywood icon Cicely Tyson, perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in 1972’s Sounder, has died. She was 96.
Variety reports that Emmy and Tony-winning actress Cicely Tyson, whose career in theater, film, and television spanned seven decades, died Thursday afternoon at the age of 96. A family statement did not reveal the cause.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” her manager, Larry 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.”
Tyson’s memoir Just As I Am was published Tuesday, and the actress was in the midst of a promotional cycle for the book.
Tyson was a trailblazer in Hollywood at a time when Black actresses were often treated with hostility by the film and TV industry. But she would go on to make a mark on both the big and small screen, starring in celebrated Black works such as Sounder (1972), for which she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Roots (1977), The Marva Collins Story (1981), The Women of Brewster Place (1989), and The Help (2011).
Tyson would earn accolades and admiration from fellow Black actors, many of whom cited her as a role model in the industry. Actress Angela Bassett, who worked with Tyson on the film The Rosa Parks Story, called Tyson one of her top influences. Oprah Winfrey, who cited her as a groundbreaker and inspiration, honored Tysons at her Legends Ball. Oscar winner Viola Davis said Tyson “has always been my muse,” insisting that Tyson be cast to play her character’s mother in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. Filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and Tyler Perry frequently casted her in their projects.
But Tyson, who would receive the honorary Oscar in 2018 — the only Black woman to date to receive that honor — said that her most important accomplishment was when President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2016. Tyson described that moment as “the most important thing that could happen to me.”
Born December 19, 1924, in New York to William and Theodosia Tyson, Tyson As an adult, Tyson began her entertainment career as a model when she was discovered by a fashion editor at Ebony magazine in the 1950s. She would perform in several substantial theater roles in the early part of the decade and was a regular on television by the mid ’60s. But it wasn’t until the release of Sounder, a 1972 drama about a family of Black sharecroppers during the Great Depression based on aWilliam H. Armstrong novel, that she would land her breakout role, earning her only Oscar nomination.
She would soon win two Emmys for her role in the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she starred as the title character, a woman born into slavery who lives through the 20th century civil rights movements. She would win one more Emmy Award in her career and be nominated a total of 15 times.
In 2013, Tyson won a Tony Award for her work in The Trip to Bountiful, later starring in a TV movie based on the play. She continued to act well into her 90s, landing roles on TV series such as House of Cards and films like The Help. As recently as 2019, she told Time magazine that she had no plans to retire. “We have to honor this blessed gift that we have,” she said. “That’s what keeps you going. Keeps your mind fluid – your heart, your whole being. You can’t just stop, because that will be the end of you.”
Tyson married jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in 1981, but their union ended in divorce in 1988. She is survived by her niece, British actress Cathy Tyson.
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