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Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson (1924–2021), award-winning star of “Sounder,” “The Help”

by Linnea Crowther

Cicely Tyson, the award-winning actress whose film, television, and theater roles included “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Roots,” “King,” “Sounder,” and “The Help,” died Thursday, her family announced.

Strength and dignity

Tyson’s choice of film and television roles helped shatter Hollywood’s African American stereotypes throughout the 1970s, as she insisted on playing characters that allowed her to radiate strength and dignity. “What you put there is everlasting on film,” she told The Washington Post as she reflected on her career in 2015. “And there was no way in the world that I was going to do something that I thought was degrading to myself as a woman, myself as a Black woman, to women in general, to my race of people for future generations.”

“Sounder”

Among the most popular of those roles was in “Sounder” (1972). Playing matriarch Rebecca Morgan opposite Paul Winfield (1939–2004), Tyson was part of a critically acclaimed cast in a movie that was unusual in Hollywood for its time, presenting a positive look at a strong Black family. The film garnered a broad range of award-season nods, including an Oscar nomination for Tyson, only the third black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (along with Dorothy Dandridge (1922–1965) and Tyson’s 1972 competition, Diana Ross).

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Tyson also received a Golden Globe nomination and won the National Society of Film Critics and National Board of Review awards for best actress. Of Tyson’s work in “Sounder,” a contemporary review by Roger Ebert (1942–2013) said it was “a wonder to see the subtleties in her performance.”

Early career

“Sounder” was the film that put Tyson in the national spotlight, but the actress was already close to 50 and had a long-established career by then. After beginning as a model, she quickly moved to acting roles despite her mother’s disapproval of the profession. In an interview with “CBS This Morning,” Tyson revealed her mother kicked her out of the house when she began acting professionally. “Oh, she was very upset,” Tyson recalled. “She said, ‘You can’t live here and do that.'”

Tyson persevered, reconciling with her mother in the years to come and finding work in movies including “Carib Gold” — her 1956 film debut — and “A Man Called Adam” (1966) alongside Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990) and Ossie Davis (1917–2005). She took early roles on television on the soap opera “The Guiding Light” and the acclaimed drama “East Side/West Side,” and she appeared on the off-Broadway stage in “The Blacks.”

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”

Tyson’s second breakthrough performance came in 1974 when she played the title character in the TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” The groundbreaking film, one of the first on TV to explore the African-American experience, cast Tyson as a freed slave and followed her life through many years after the Civil War. Tyson’s performance won her two Emmy awards, for best lead actress in a drama and actress of the year.

TV and movies

Tyson appeared in other notable TV movies and miniseries, including “Roots” (1977), in which she played Binta, mother of Kunta Kinte. The following year, she played Coretta Scott King (1927–2006) in “King,” once again starring opposite Paul Winfield and earning an Emmy nomination. She won her third Emmy, for outstanding supporting actress in the 1991 movie “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

Other well-received roles for the big screen followed as well. She received an NAACP Image Award for “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005) as well as nominations for “Hoodlum” (1997), and she was part of the award-winning ensemble cast of “The Help” (2010). She had notable roles in other films including “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991) and “Because of Winn-Dixie” (2005).

Broadway success

In a 2015 interview with The Associated Press, Tyson discussed what draws her to certain roles. “Well, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns,” she explained. “I’ve said that from the beginning of my career. It happens when I read a script. When I read a script, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. If my stomach churns, I know it’s not for me. When my skin tingles, I can’t wait. It’s that simple with me.”

One of those skin-tingling moments occurred when she first saw the Horton Foote drama “The Trip to Bountiful.” She loved the play and dreamed of appearing in it or something like it. That dream came true when she was cast as the star of a 2013 all-black Broadway revival of the play. “I fell off the chair,” she told The Washington Post as she recalled receiving the news. “Literally. Fell. Off. The chair!” She took the role and won both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for best actress.

Personal life

Though Tyson’s acting credits were well-known, her personal life was more of a mystery. She chose not to reveal much — including her age, though it was eventually tracked down by the media via census data. Equally inscrutable was her romantic life, about which not much is known beyond the fact that she was married to jazz legend Miles Davis (1926–1991) from 1981 until their divorce in 1988. When asked about the marriage, Tyson would typically deflect questions, as when she told The Washington Post, “I don’t think it has anything to do with my work, my personal life.” But she did elaborate slightly to “CBS This Morning” when she offered, “I don’t really talk about it, but I will say this — I cherish every single moment that I had with him.”

Honors and achievements

Tyson received Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Other honors included a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honorary degrees from Morehouse College and Columbia University. Tyson was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 2010, an acknowledgment of “the highest or noblest achievement” by an African-American.

The Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts (now the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Fine and Performing Arts) was dedicated in 1995 in East Orange, New Jersey. Tyson not only appreciated the honor, she also chose to be involved with the school, visiting the school and participating in the school’s decisions and events.

Tributes to Cicely Tyson

Full Obituary: Variety

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