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Cicely Tyson, Who Brought Grace And Gravitas To The Screen, Has Died At 96

Jan 28, 2021
Originally published on February 1, 2021 12:13 pm

Renowned actress Cicely Tyson has died; she was 96 years old. Her death was announced by Larry Thompson, her longtime manager, who did not specify the cause.

In a career that spanned some 65 years, Tyson was an elegant, dignified presence on stage and screen. She commanded attention in such movies as Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She won Emmys and, at age 88, a Tony Award. She also inspired generations of African American actors who grew up watching her.

In an interview that aired just last Sunday marking the publication of her memoir Just As I Am, Tyson told NPR's Michel Martin that as an actress, "I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer. ... I never spoke ... but I was a great observer."

Cicely Tyson brought grace and gravitas to the roles she played. It was her eyes that spoke. They could sparkle in one scene and then pierce the soul in another. That is, she had range.

In Sounder, she was a wife and mother in a family of Black sharecroppers in Louisiana in the 1930s. The part called for Tyson to be tender with her family and to seethe when the town's white sheriff won't let her see her husband in jail. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was a "wonder to see the subtleties in her performance."

In 1972, Sounder was one of the first movies to show the strong bonds of a loving Black family. Tyson once told NPR that it was also the movie that made her realize she needed to look for roles that reflected her experience as an African American woman.

Cicely Tyson visited London in 1973.
Dennis Oulds / Getty Images

During a press conference for Sounder, a white journalist told her the movie made him aware of his own prejudice because, he said, he was surprised to hear African American children call their father "Daddy," just like his kids called him.

"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.'"

Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem. Her parents were from the Caribbean. Her father was a carpenter and a painter; her mother was a housekeeper who was deeply religious. In 2005, Tyson told NPR that their lives revolved around the church.

"We did everything in the church," she said. "I mean, I played the organ. I played the piano. I taught Sunday school. I sang in the choir. And then on Monday, we had prayer meeting, and Tuesday, we had young people's meeting. Wednesday, we had old people's meeting. Saturday, we cleaned the church and Sunday, we were right back in the church. My entire social life was in and about the church. And so that is the basis of my foundation."

Tyson was also gorgeous. She started modeling after high school. Soon, she was acting in movies and on TV. It was the 1960s – during the civil rights movement. New York was a place where Black artists formed alliances. Tyson performed in shows with all-Black casts, alongside artists such as her friends Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones.

One of Tyson's first roles was in the socially conscious but short-lived TV series East Side/West Side. Tyson played a poised, intelligent secretary in an office of social workers.

In 2006, Cicely Tyson was honored and spoke at an Ebony magazine event ahead of the Academy Awards. Her face graced the cover of the magazine several times.
Amanda Edwards / Getty Images

Tyson's short Afro hairstyle inspired other Black women to also wear their hair natural. Tyson was on magazine covers like Ebony and Ms. She married jazz star Miles Davis; photographers swooned over the famous couple.

Cicely Tyson always looked for positive portrayals of Black women. In 1974, she took on one of her most famous characters — the lead in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a TV movie on CBS.

With the help of a stunning makeup job, Tyson transformed herself to play the title role, a former slave and sharecropper. Tyson played Miss Pittman at various stages in her life. As a young adult, she's beaten up by Klansmen. Friends and family members are murdered. Tyson captured her weariness — as well as her resilience.

It was a rare event for a television network to broadcast a feature film about the brutal struggles of African Americans in prime time, especially from the point of view of African Americans. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won nine Emmys, including one for Tyson.

It was a performance that deeply inspired a young Viola Davis. She and her sisters watched the TV movie together in their family's rundown apartment in South Carolina. At an awards press conference in 2015, Davis said Tyson was a revelation.

"She was the first actress that I saw when I was 6, 7 years old that — where I saw craft," Davis said. "Where I saw the magic of transformation."

Viola Davis eventually got to share in that magic. In the TV series How to Get Away with Murder, Tyson played Davis' mother.

Cicely Tyson used to say, well into her 80s, that she was still looking for one more great role to play. At age 88, she found it: playing Mrs. Carrie Watts in a Broadway revival of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, with an all-Black cast.

ArtsEmerson via / YouTube

In one scene at the bus station, Tyson's character strikes up a conversation with another solo traveler. She would break into a hymn. Overcome with emotion, she would get up off the bench and start clapping. Sometimes the audience would join in.

She was once asked, what was her secret for being so active into her 90s. Tyson said she took care of her body — but also that she simply loved life.

: 1/31/21

An earlier web version of this story incorrectly stated that Cicely Tyson won a Tony Award at 89. She was 88.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Renowned actress Cicely Tyson has died at the age of 96. In a career that spanned more than 60 years, Tyson was an elegant, dignified presence on stage and screen. Less than a week ago, she spoke with NPR's Michel Martin, looking back on her career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CICELY TYSON: It's remarkable to me that I have arrived at where I am today because I had not anticipated it. No matter what happened in my life, it did not deter me from reaching the goals that I had set for myself.

CHANG: Tyson commanded attention in such movies as "Sounder" and "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman." She won Emmys and, at age 88, a Tony Award. She also inspired generations of African American actors who grew up watching her. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Cicely Tyson brought grace and gravitas to the roles she played. And boy, did she have range. In "Sounder," she was a wife and mother in a family of Black sharecroppers in Louisiana in the 1930s. The part called for Tyson to be tender with her family...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUNDER")

TYSON: (As Rebecca Morgan) I'm fixing to bake a cake for David Lee to take to your daddy this time.

KEVIN HOOKS: (As David Lee Morgan) Make a chocolate cake, Mom. Daddy likes things this chocolate.

BLAIR: ...And seethe when the town's white sheriff won't let her see her husband, who's in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUNDER")

TYSON: (As Rebecca Morgan) You got your lowlife job, Mr. Sheriff.

BLAIR: With Tyson, it was her eyes that spoke. They could sparkle in one scene and then pierce the soul in another. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was a wonder to see the subtleties in her performance. In 1972, "Sounder" was one of the first movies to show the strong bonds of a loving Black family. Tyson once told NPR it was also the movie that made her realize she needed to look for roles that reflected her experience as an African American woman. During a press conference for "Sounder," a white journalist told her the movie made him aware of his own prejudice because he said he was surprised to hear African American children call their father Daddy, just like his kids called him.

TYSON: He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he. 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.

BLAIR: Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem. Her parents were from the Caribbean. Her father was a carpenter and a painter. Her mother was a housekeeper who was deeply religious. In 2005, Tyson told NPR their lives revolved around the church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TYSON: We did everything in the church. I mean, we - I played the organ. I played the piano. I taught Sunday school. I sang in the choir. And then on Monday, we had prayer meeting. And Tuesday, we had young people's meeting. Wednesday, we had old people's meeting. And we just - Saturday, we cleaned the church. And Sunday, we were right back in the church. My entire social life was in and about the church. And so that is the basis of my foundation.

BLAIR: Tyson was also gorgeous. She started modeling after high school. Soon, she was acting in movies and on TV. It was the 1960s, the civil rights movement. New York was a place where Black artists formed alliances. Tyson performed in shows with all-Black casts alongside artists like Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. One of Tyson's first roles was in the socially conscious but short-lived TV series "East Side/West Side." Tyson played a poised, intelligent secretary in an office of social workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE")

TYSON: (As Jane Foster) He found out that I like to read books, but I couldn't go to the library. Negro children didn't go to the library.

BLAIR: Tyson's short Afro hairstyle inspired other Black women to also wear their hair natural. She was on magazine covers like Ebony and Ms. She married jazz star Miles Davis. Photographers swooned over the famous couple.

Cicely Tyson always looked for positive portrayals of Black women. In 1974, she took on one of her most famous characters, the lead in "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you 110 years old?

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) So they tell me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How far back can you remember?

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) How far back you want to go?

BLAIR: With the help of a stunning makeup job, Tyson transformed herself to play Miss Jane Pittman. She made her body look withered and frail. It was a rare event for a TV network to broadcast a feature film about the brutal struggles of African Americans in prime time from the point of view of African Americans. Tyson played Miss Pittman at various stages in her life. As a young adult, she's beaten up by Klansmen. Friends and family members are murdered. Tyson captured her wariness, as well as her resilience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN")

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) The other day, they throwed a girl in jail for trying to drink from the fountain. Today, they killed my Jimmy. And I say I'm going.

BLAIR: Miss Jane Pittman walks slowly to the whites-only water fountain and takes a drink herself. "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman" won nine Emmys, including one for Tyson. It was a performance that deeply inspired a young Viola Davis. She and her sisters watched the TV movie together in their family's rundown apartment in South Carolina. At an awards press conference in 2015, Davis said Tyson was a revelation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VIOLA DAVIS: She was the first actress that I saw when I was 6, 7 years old that - where I saw craft, where I saw the magic of transformation.

BLAIR: Viola Davis eventually got to share in that magic in the TV series "How To Get Away With Murder." Tyson played Davis' mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")

TYSON: (As Ophelia Harkness) Let me at your hair. Your kitchen is tight.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Just a little bit, Mama.

TYSON: (As Ophelia Harkness) Come on, now. Where's your comb?

BLAIR: Cicely Tyson used to tell a story that well into her 80s, she was still looking for one more great role to play. At age 88, she found it, playing Mrs. Carrie Watts in a Broadway revival of Horton Foote's "A Trip To Bountiful" (ph) with an all-Black cast. In this scene at the bus station, Tyson strikes up a conversation with another solo traveler.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL")

TYSON: (As Carrie Watts) Everything seemed to work out today. Why is it some days everything works out and some days nothing works out? I guess the good Lord is with me today. I wonder why the Lord isn't with us every day. It would be so nice if he were, no? Yeah.

BLAIR: Tyson would break into hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL")

TYSON: (As Carrie Watts, singing) Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.

BLAIR: Overcome with emotion, she would get up off the bench and start clapping. Sometimes the audience would join in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This is my story. This is my song, praising my savior all the day long.

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: The late Cicely Tyson joyously leading a Broadway audience in a hymn in "A Trip To Bountiful." She was once asked what was her secret for being so active into her 90s. Tyson said she took care of her body but also that she simply loved life.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.