Cicely Tyson, Pioneering Hollywood Icon, Dies at 96
Cicely Tyson, the stage, screen and television actress whose vivid portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in the dramatic arts of the 1970s, propelling her to stardom and fame as an exemplar for civil rights, died on Thursday. She was 96.
Her death was announced by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson, who provided no other details.
In a remarkable career of seven decades, Ms. Tyson broke ground for serious Black actors by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people. She urged Black colleagues to do the same, and often went without work. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral, and insisted that African-Americans, even if poor or downtrodden, should be portrayed with dignity.
In 1974, Ms. Tyson stunned a national television audience with her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of a former slave in the CBS special “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Born into slavery before the Civil War, Miss Pittman survives for more than a century to see the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At 110, she tells her story, the searing experience of a Black woman in the South. Then, in her only gesture of protest, she sips from a whites-only drinking fountain.
Ms. Tyson later found other suitable television roles: as Kunta Kinte’s mother in a mini-series based on Alex Haley’s “Roots” in 1977; as Coretta Scott King in the 1978 NBC mini-series “King,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final years; as Harriet Tubman, whose Underground Railroad spirited slaves to freedom, in “A Woman Called Moses” (1978); and as a Chicago teacher devoted to poor children in “The Marva Collins Story” (1981). In 1994, she won a supporting actress Emmy for her portrayal of Castalia in the mini-series “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”
For many Americans, Ms. Tyson was an idol of the Black Is Beautiful movement, regal in an African turban and caftan, her face gracing the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines. She was a vegetarian, a teetotaler, a runner, a meditator and, from 1981 to 1989, the wife of the jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. Since the ’60s she had inspired Black American women to embrace their own standards of beauty — including helping to popularize the Afro.
In January 2021, when she was 96, her memoir, “Just as I Am,” appeared, and in a pre-publication interview with The New York Times Magazine, she was asked if she had any advice for the young.
“It’s simple,” she said. “I try always to be true to myself. I learned from my mom: ‘Don’t lie ever, no matter how bad it is. Don’t lie to me ever, OK? You will be happier that you told the truth.’ That has stayed with me, and it will stay with me for as long as I’m lucky enough to be here.”
Her later television roles included that of Ophelia Harkness in a half dozen episodes of the long-running ABC legal drama “How to Get Away With Murder,” for which she was nominated repeatedly for Emmys and other awards for outstanding guest or supporting actress (2015-19), and in the role of Doris Jones in three episodes of “House of Cards” (2016).
In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.