Legendary, celebrated performer Cicely Tyson, who cut her path in an era of Hollywood that was especially hostile for Black actresses, died Thursday, just two days after releasing her memoir, at the age of 96.
“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon,” her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement to Yahoo Entertainment. “At this time, please allow the family their privacy.”
Thompson said he had managed Tyson for more than 40 years, and that her book, Just As I Am, held great meaning for her.
“Each year was a privilege and blessing,” he said. “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 spent more than 60 years as star of stage, TV and film, having played parts early on in TV’s Guiding Light and I Spy. In 1973, she was nominated for the best actress Oscar for her role in Sounder, a movie about Black sharecroppers in 1930s Louisiana. She didn’t win then, but she was given an honorary award at the 2019 ceremony, for her work in Fried Green Tomatoes, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, The Help and countless other films.
On TV, Tyson won accolades for her turns on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Roots, The Women of Brewster Place and scores of other shows and made-for-TV movies. She spent the past six years appearing as a guest star on the ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, for which she earned five Primetime Emmy nods.
Born in Harlem to immigrants from the West Indies, Tyson began her career as a model and earned her first TV credit on an episode of Frontiers of Faith in 1951.
“I was walking up Fifth Avenue. I would spend my lunch hour, actually, at Lord & Taylor,” Tyson explained to NPR while promoting her book. “That was my favorite store. And I would go there every time I finished my lunch and peruse what they had. And someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked for my agency. And I asked, ‘What agency?’ They said, ‘Aren’t you a model?’ I said no. And they said, ‘Well, you should be.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ They said, ‘Well, you register at a modeling school and then you get your certificate if you’re good enough.’ And then I started distributing my photographs among the agencies. And then I began to get calls and that’s how it started.”
In a separate interview with NPR, she said Sounder was the film that led to her decision to choose films that told the story of African-American women. It happened during promotion of Sounder, when a white reporter told her that he was surprised to hear that Black children called their parents dad and mom, too.
“He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he,” Tyson said. “And really, I admired him for standing up in an audience and saying that, and I thought to myself, ‘Cicely, you really can’t afford the luxury of just being an actress.’”
She won a Tony Award for her work in the 2013 revival of the stage version of The Trip to Bountiful, when she was 88.
By 2016, Tyson was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian. As President Barack Obama presented it, he said, “In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
Here are some of the remembrances that her many celebrity friends and fans sent on social media:
I’m devastated. My heart is just broken. I loved you so much!! You were everything to me! You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. You gave me permission to dream… https://t.co/7V7AFZtFLa pic.twitter.com/l2TLfM4weX
— Viola Davis (@violadavis) January 29, 2021
QUEEN somehow just doesn’t capture MS. TYSON. Her legacy has left an indelible mark. She paved a way that created a space for girls like me to feel the light. Thank you GODDESS CICELY. Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/VCBCwPpc05
— Regina King (@ReginaKing) January 29, 2021
This one cuts deep. @IAmCicelyTyson was my first screen Mom.. Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace. She was as regal as they come. An artist of the highest order, I will love her forever… ♥️ RIP pic.twitter.com/69Awj7qI8o
— LeVar Burton (@levarburton) January 29, 2021
To have gotten to be in the same room as you multiple times, is truly to have been in the presence of GREATNESS!!. There are no words, just all the feelings you’ve evoked in us all and the indescribable blueprint, legacy you leave for us all. Thank you REST IN POWER! #cicelytyson pic.twitter.com/6g7cHrEIEP
— Laverne Cox (@Lavernecox) January 29, 2021
Rest in power, Cicely Tyson. Thank you for your life, your love, your light ??
— Amanda Gorman (@TheAmandaGorman) January 29, 2021
Because of her sacrifice & resilience, today we enjoy so many movies portraying strong Black woman characters. Simply put, Cicely Tyson is Black royalty & her incredible talent and spirit will be missed. Cookie & I are praying for the entire Tyson family and her loved ones.?? pic.twitter.com/KyujlGKL4v
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 29, 2021
A pioneer with purpose. Cicely Tyson’s talent redefined theater, film and television. Her courage, resilience and grace changed the entertainment landscape for generations to come. May she Rest In Power. pic.twitter.com/F3kyDpklJ0
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) January 29, 2021
Heart broken to hear about Cicely Tyson’s passing. I had the honor of traveling with her to visit children in N.O. after the devastation of Katrina. What a gift we experienced to be graced by her wisdom, kindness & compassion for all. She will be missed. May God carry her home ??
— Reese Witherspoon (@ReeseW) January 29, 2021
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Originally published January 28, 2021, 6:44 PM