Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in Sounder, won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, died Thursday at age 96.
Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.
With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy, according to a statement issued through Thompson.
A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. Tyson refused to take parts simply for the paycheck, remaining choosey.
I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it, she told The Associated Press in 2013.
Tributes from two former presidents and from across the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway poured in, with many praising her careful approach to her career and activism. She took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being — flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections, wrote former President Barack Obama, who awarded Tyson the Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Former President Bill Clinton wrote online that Tyson brought complex characters to life with dignity and heart, and humanity and depth, always remaining true to herself. She used her career to illuminate the humanity in Black people. The roles she played reflected her values, wrote Oprah Winfrey.
Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am, was published this week.
Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. A new generation of moviegoers saw her in the 2011 hit The Help.
In 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar statuette at the annual Governors Awards. I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time, Tyson said at the time. I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it.
Writing in Blacks in American Film and Television, Donald Bogle described Tyson as a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and a regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. (Audiences) sensed… her power and range.
Sounder, based on the William H. Armstrong novel, was the film that confirmed her stardom in 1972. Tyson was cast as the Depression-era loving wife of a sharecropper (Paul Winfield) who is confined in jail for stealing a piece of meat for his family. She is forced to care for their children and attend to the crops.
The New York Times reviewer wrote: She passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of Black women.
Her performance evoked rave reviews, and Tyson won an Academy Award nomination as best actress of 1972.
In an interview on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, she recalled that she had been asked to test for a smaller role in the film and said she wanted to play the mother, Rebecca. She was told, You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too sexy, you’re too this, you’re too that, and I said, `I am an actress.’
In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won the Tony for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. It was the actor’s first time back on Broadway in three decades and she refused to turn meekly away when the teleprompter told to finish her acceptance speech.
″`Please wrap it up,′ it says. Well, that’s exactly what you did with me: You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years, she told the crowd. She had prepared no speech (I think it’s presumptuous, she told the AP later. I burned up half my time wondering what I was going to say.)
She reprised her winning role in the play for a Lifetime Television movie, which was screened at the White House. She returned to Broadway in 2015 opposite James Earl Jones for a revival of The Gin Game.
Her fame transcended all media. Apple CEO Tim Cook took to Twitter to praise Tyson as 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. Rihanna called her a true legend. Neil deGrasse Tyson called her a force of nature unto herself and Shonda Rhimes said her power and grace will be with us forever.
In the 1974 television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Tyson is seen aging from a young woman in slavery to a 110-year-old who campaigned for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In the touching climax, she laboriously walks up to a whites only water fountain and takes a drink as white officers look on.
It’s important that they see and hear history from Miss Jane’s point of view, Tyson told The New York Times. And I think they will be more ready to accept it from her than from someone younger
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael offered her praise: She’s an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we’ve got.
At the Emmy Awards, Pittman won multiple awards, including two honors for Tyson, best lead actress in a drama and best actress in a special.
People ask me what I prefer doing — film, stage, television? I say, ‘I would have done Jane Pittman in the basement or in a storefront.’ It’s the role that determines where I go, she told the AP.