Legend of screen and television Cicely Tyson dies at 96

2/4/2021, 6 p.m.
Actress Cicely Tyson, whose legendary roles portraying the history and humanity of Black people won awards and touched hearts, has …
Ms. Tyson

NEW YORK - Actress Cicely Tyson, whose legendary roles portraying the history and humanity of Black people won awards and touched hearts, has died.

The pioneering actor who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as a sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and is remembered for her starring role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. She was 96.

Her memoir, “Just As I Am,” was released two days before her death and shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. It traces her roots growing up in Harlem and being raised in the church to becoming a successful model and actress despite racial and personal trauma and her tumultuous, seven-year marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis.

Former President Barack Obama and his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, paid tribute to Ms. Tyson and her “extraordinary career” on social media.

“At a time when parts for actors who looked like her weren’t easy to come by, she refused to take on roles that reduced Black women to their gender or their race,” the former president wrote. “Sometimes, that meant she would go years without work. But she took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being — flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections.”

President Obama awarded Ms. Tyson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

A onetime model, Ms. Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. She refused to take parts simply for the paycheck.

In addition to her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former enslaved woman in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A new generation of moviegoers was introduced to her in the 2011 hit “The Help.”

In 2018, she was awarded an honorary Oscar at the annual Governors Awards.

Film and television critics talked about her “regal air,” as well as her power and range as an actor.

The film “Sounder,” based on the William H. Armstrong novel, confirmed her stardom in 1972. Ms. Tyson was cast as the Depression-era loving wife of a sharecropper, played by Paul Winfield, who is confined in jail for stealing a piece of meat for his family. She is forced to care for their children and their crops.

Her performance evoked rave reviews, and she won an Academy Award nomination as best actress.

In 2013 at the age of 88, Ms. Tyson won a Tony Award for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” It was her first time back on Broadway in three decades and she refused to turn meekly away when the teleprompter told to finish her acceptance speech.

“ ‘Please wrap it up,’ it says. Well, that’s exactly what you did with me: You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years,” she told the crowd. She had prepared no speech. “I think it’s presumptuous,” she told the AP later. “I burned up half my time wondering what I was going to say.”

She reprised her winning role in the play for a Lifetime Television movie, which was screened at the White House. She returned to Broadway in 2015 opposite James Earl Jones for a revival of “The Gin Game.”

In the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Ms. Tyson is seen aging from a young woman in slavery to a 110-year-old who campaigned for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

In the touching climax, she laboriously walks up to a “whites-only” water fountain and takes a drink as white police officers watch her.

“It’s important that they see and hear history from Miss Jane’s point of view,” Ms. Tyson told The New York Times. “And I think they will be more ready to accept it from her than from someone younger.”

At the Emmy Awards, “Pittman” won multiple awards, including two honors for Ms. Tyson, best lead actress in a drama and best actress in a special.

Ms. Tyson made her movie debut in the late 1950s with small roles in such films as “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “The Last Angry Man,” and “The Comedians.” She played the romantic interest to Sammy Davis Jr.’s jazz musician in “A Man Called Adam.”

She gained wider notice with a recurring role in the 1963 drama series “East Side, West Side,” which starred George C. Scott as a social worker. Ms. Tyson played his secretary, making her the first Black woman to have a continuing role in a dramatic television series.

She also appeared on Broadway in the 1960s in “The Cool World,” “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright” and other plays. Off-Broadway, she appeared with such future stars as Maya Angelou, Godfrey Cambridge and James Earl Jones in a 1961 production of French playwright Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

She won a Drama Desk award in 1962 for a role in the off-Broadway “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.”

After her “Sounder” and “Miss Jane Pittman” successes, Ms. Tyson continued to seek TV roles that had messages, and she succeeded with “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries that became one of the biggest events in TV history, she played Binta, mother of the protagonist, Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton, and “King” (about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and “The Rosa Parks Story.” She was nominated for Emmy Awards for “Roots,” “King,” “The Marva Collins Story,” “Sweet Justice” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”

She won a supporting actress Emmy in 1994 for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

She complained to an interviewer: “We Black actresses have played so many prostitutes and drug addicts and house maids, always negative. I won’t play that kind of characterless role any more, even if I have to go back to starving.”

She continued with such films as “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Grass Harp” and Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”

In recent years, she was part of a panel discussion for “Cherish the Day,” an eight-episode OWN anthology series created and produced by Ava DuVernay. She played the mother of Viola Davis’ character on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Ms. Tyson’s parents moved from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to New York, where she was born in 1924, the youngest of three children. When her parents separated, her mother went on welfare. At 9, Ms. Tyson sold shopping bags on the streets of East Harlem.

When she graduated from high school, she found work as a secretary at the Red Cross. Her striking looks prompted friends to advise her to take up modeling and that led to acting schools, theater, movies and television.

“My mother told me I could no longer live in her house because I was determined to be an actress,” she told an interviewer in 1990. “I said ‘OK,’ and I moved out.”

Ms. Tyson was never hard to spot. She tried to say no to wearing a terrifically large hat to Aretha Franklin’s 2018 funeral, only to be overruled by her designer. The hat would become a viral highlight.

“I never thought in my career that I would be upstaged by a hat! And I did not want to wear it,” Ms. Tyson said later. “I said, ‘I can’t wear that hat, I will be blocking the view of the people behind me. They won’t be able to see and they’ll call me all kinds of names.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Put the hat on.’ ”

She came around, telling the AP she thought of the hat as homage to Ms. Franklin’s appearance at President Obama’s inauguration.