Cicely Tyson, Pioneering Actress, Dies at 96
In a life that spanned nearly a century, and a career that lasted well over 60 years, Cicely Tyson broke ground over and over again. Along the way, Tyson won countless awards, including three Emmys, an honorary Academy Award, a Peabody Award, and a Tony Award — just eight years ago. Sadly, Tyson passed away this week, at the age of 96. According to The New York Times, “her death was announced by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson, who provided no other details.”
The Times also provided a succinct summation of precisely what made Tyson such a special actress:
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.
After years playing small roles in television and Off Broadway, her breakthrough came in 1972’s Sounder, where she played the matriarch of a family struggling to survive during the Great Depression after her husband (played by Paul Winfield) is arrested for stealing to feed his family. Both Tyson and Winfield were nominated for Oscars, along with the film’s screenplay, while Sounder itself was nominated for Best Picture. (It lost to The Godfather.)
Two years later, Tyson won an Emmy Award for the TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She played the title character, a former slave who lives into her 100s to witness the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Three years later, Tyson was nominated for another Emmy for her work in the iconic miniseries Roots. The following year, she was nominated again, this time for the limited series King, where she played Coretta Scott King. All in all, Tyson was nominated for 15 Emmys, including five in the last six years for her guest appearances on How to Get Away With Murder.
After a 30 year absence from Broadway, Tyson won a Tony in 2013 (at the age of 88) for her work in the revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. The following year, Tyson reprised her role in a TV movie.
Tyson lived an incredible life and produced an equally impressive body of work. For further reading, you may want to check out Tyson’s autobiography, Just As I Am, which in a strange quirk of fate, was released just this week. Given her astounding career, that is a fitting title.
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