Cicely Tyson was an award-winning film, television and stage actress. She is notable for her roles in ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ ‘The Help’ and Broadway's ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ among others.
When and Where Was Cicely Tyson Born?
Cicely Tyson was born in New York City on December 19, 1924 (although there is uncertainty surrounding her birth year). Protective of her privacy, Tyson has never confirmed the date.
Tyson grew up in Harlem, New York. At the age of 18, she walked away from a typing job and began modeling. Tyson was then drawn to acting, though she had not been permitted to go to plays or movies as a child. When she got her first acting job, her religious mother, feeling that Tyson was choosing a sinful path, kicked her out of their home.
Movies, TV and Theatre
Despite her mother's initial disapproval (the two didn't speak for two years before reconciling), Tyson found success as an actress, appearing onstage, in movies and on TV.
‘Roots,’ ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ & More
In 1963, Tyson became the first African-American star of a TV drama in the series East Side/West Side, playing the role of secretary Jane Foster. She went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for 1972's Sounder. She also portrayed notable roles on television, including Kunta Kinte's mother in the adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots and the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which earned Tyson two Emmy Awards in 1974.
Moving to Broadway in 1983, Tyson was the lead in The Corn Is Green, a play set in a Welsh mining town. In 1994, the actress nabbed her third Emmy in her supporting role as housemaid Castalia in CBS’ miniseries television adaptation of the Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
However, Tyson's career trajectory wasn't a smooth one; at times, she had trouble simply finding work. She flatly refused to do “blaxploitation” films, or to take parts solely for the paycheck, and was selective about the roles she chose. As she explained in a 1983 interview, “Unless a piece really said something, I had no interest in it. I have got to know that I have served some purpose here.”
‘The Help,’ Broadway's ‘The Trip to Bountiful’
More recently, Tyson appeared in The Help (2011) as maid Constantine Bates, for which she received many awards for being part of the ensemble cast and has also worked on several Tyler Perry movies. And after a 30-year absence from Broadway, Tyson returned with a role in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful.
The actress traveled to Texas in an effort to better understand her part in the acclaimed production ‐ dedication that paid off when her performance won Tyson the 2013 Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play. In 2017, Tyson appeared in director Richard Linklater's film Last Flag Flying, an adaptation from the 2005 novel of the same name.
Through the years, Tyson has kept much of her personal life ‐ including her birth year ‐ under wraps. However, what we do know is that Tyson was married to Miles Davis for seven years in the 1980s and has no children.
Though other information about her life is scant, Tyson has a well-known commitment to community involvement. She co-founded the Dance Theater of Harlem after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and when a school board in East Orange, New Jersey, wanted to name a performing arts schools after her, she only agreed to accept the honor if she could participate in school activities. In addition to attending meetings and events, Tyson has even taught a master class at the school.
Tyson has received numerous acting awards and nominations, and became a member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977. She has also been honored by the Congress of Racial Equality and by the National Council of Negro Women.
And in 2010, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People presented Tyson with its 95th Spingarn Medal ‐ an award given to African Americans who have reached outstanding levels of achievement.
In 2015, Tyson was nominated for an Emmy for her guest starring role in ABC's How to Get Away With Murder and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. The following year, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Tyson passed away on January 28, 2021. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement. “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.”
December 19, 1924
January 28, 2021
- She is one of only 10 African American women to be nominated for a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar. This is a list of those women who have been nominated: Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Gabourey Sidibe, and Quvenzhané Wallis.
- The Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing & Fine Arts was named in her honor and is located in East Orange, New Jersey. She visits the school frequently, and occasionally teaches a master class in acting.
- She was the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a leading role (Movie or Miniseries). She won the Emmy for her performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
- She was married to Miles Davis. They got married by preacher and civil rights activist Andre Young. Bill Cosby gave her away.
- She doesn’t eat meat. Long before most health gurus stopped eating meat, Tyson has been a vegetarian since the 60s.
- Her parents kicked her out of the house for pursuing acting. Her family was extremely religious and when she quit her job as a typist to persue modeling and acting, she was kicked out of the house.
- She almost starred in the popular Hunger Games movie trilogy. Tyson was a strong consideration for the role of Magz, which later went to Lynn Cohen.
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