Cicely Tyson, the stage, film and television actor most popular for smashing racial stereotypes in the 1970s with her portrayals of strong African-American women on screen and using her “celebrity status to support civil rights“, died on Thursday. She was 96.
Tyson’s memoir Just As I Am was published on Tuesday.
Her long-time manager, Larry Thompson, confirming the news to Variety, said in a statement “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing. 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.” Details about the cause of death have not yet been disclosed by Thompson or Tyson’s family.
In her remarkable career spanning almost seven decades, Tyson has appeared in over 100 films, shows, and stage performances. During her time under the limelight, she won three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and an honorary Oscar at the age of 93. In November 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States and in 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
Born in New York City on December 19, 1924, Tyson broke out in 1961 with a part in the Broadway show The Blacks. Soon after that, she entered prime-time TV drama and went on to portray several iconic roles in films like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Marva Collins Story, The Help, and more. In films, Tyson made her debut with a small role in 1957’s Twelve Angry Men but her formal debut was in the 1959 Sidney Poitier film Odds Against Tomorrow.
In 1972, her performance in the film Sounder won her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. In an interview with The New York Times at the time, Tyler said, “Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”
A staunch speaker against racism and stereotypical portrayal of Black characters on-screen, Tyson, in the interview said, “We have contributed a great deal to this country, but what’s being projected is a very negative image, and not necessarily a projection of the truth. I stopped going to see those blaxploitation films … I just couldn’t stand them.”
The actress was one of 25 Black women honored for their contributions to art, entertainment, and civil rights as part of Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 Legends Ball.
Several celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, former US president Barack Obama, actor LeVar Burton wrote tributes honouring the late actor, on social media.
.@IAmCicelyTyson‘s iconic beauty may have gotten her noticed at a young age, but it’s her talent that made her the living legend she is. And she’s finally telling her story. I read her memoir #JustAsIAm and now fully understand why she is such a treasure. What a life! pic.twitter.com/MZrCIbXFNP
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) January 27, 2021
Tyson played the mother of Viola Davis’ character on How to Get Away with Murder and last appeared on the show in 2020
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In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it. She had a heart unlike any other—and for 96 years, she left a mark on the world that few will ever match. pic.twitter.com/JRsL3zlKtP
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 29, 2021
“What struck me every time I spent time with Cicely Tyson was not necessarily her star power—though that was evident enough—it was her humanity. Just by walking into a room, she had this way of elevating everyone around her,” former US First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted.
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