NEW YORK (AP) – Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday at age 96.
Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson.
A onetime model, 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. Tyson refused to take parts simply for the paycheck, remaining choosey.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.
Tributes from two former presidents and from across the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway poured in, with many praising her careful approach to her career and activism. Tyson’s memoir, “Just As I Am,” was published last week.
Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A new generation of moviegoers saw her in the 2011 hit “The Help.”
“ODDS” TO “ROOTS”
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. Tyson played his secretary, making her the ﬁrst Black woman to have a continuing role in a dramatic television series.
She played a role in the 1968 drama “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” that was hailed by a reviewer as “an absolute embodiment of the slogan `Black is beautiful.`” In “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.
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, Tyson continued to seek TV roles that had messages, and she succeeded with “Roots” and “King” (about Martin Luther King) and “The Rosa Parks Story.”
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 “The Blue Bird,” “Concorde – Airport ’79,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Grass Harp” and Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”
She won a supporting actress Emmy in 1994 for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” She was nominated for Emmys several other times, including for “Roots,” “King,” “The Marva Collins Story” “Sweet Justice” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”
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.”
MARRIED TO MILES
Tyson’s parents moved from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to New York, where Cicely (her name was spelled early on as Cecily and Sicely) was born in 1924, the youngest of three children. When her parents separated, her mother went on welfare. At 9 Cicely 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.”
Tyson was married once, to jazz great Miles Davis. The wedding was held in 1981 at Bill Cosby’s home in Massachusetts, attended by show business notables. They divorced in 1988.
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,” 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 Franklin’s appearance at Obama’s inauguration.