Cicely Tyson, the Hollywood legend who won Emmy and Tony awards during a 70-year career that spanned television, film, and theater, died Thursday. She was 96.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Tyson’s 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.”
Over decades, she became a legend by turning down stereotypical roles for Black women and instead forging a path with nuanced characters that led to household name status with 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which she won two Emmys.
After first pursuing a career as a fashion model, Tyson took up acting in 1951 on the NBC show Frontiers of Faith. When she appeared on the TV series East Side/West Side as Jane Foster from 1963–1964, she became the first Black woman to land a main role in a television drama. She also acted on the soap opera The Guiding Light.
Tyson won her first Emmy Award in 1974 for Best Lead Actress in a Drama and Actress of the Year for playing the role of Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In 1994, her acting in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All won her another Emmy in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special category. Throughout her career, Tyson was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, including for her guest role in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.
In 2013, Tyson also earned a Tony Award in the category of Best Actress in a Play for the character Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, becoming the oldest recipient of the honor in that category.
An accomplished actor, Tyson also received an Oscar nomination in 1973 in the Best Actress category for Sounder, as well as an Honorary Oscar in 2018. Among her other notable awards, Tyson was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Barack Obama in 2016 as well as the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.
Tyson's acting career didn't slow down when she got older. She played supporting roles in 2011's The Help, House of Cards in 2016, and Madam Secretary in 2019. She also appeared in many Tyler Perry films, such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman in 2005, Madea’s Family Reunion in 2006, and Why Did I Get Married Too? in 2010.
In 1942, when the actor was 18, she married Kenneth Franklin, but the marriage ended 14 years later. In the 1960s, Tyson started dating famed jazz musician Miles Davis and the two married in 1981. She later filed for divorce in 1988.
On Jan. 26, two days before her death was announced, Tyson published a memoir titled Just as I Am, which detailed her career and personal life, including her marriage to Davis, who she said was unfaithful, physically abusive, and was addicted to drugs.
As news broke about Tyson's death, fans, members of Hollywood, and other public figures took to Twitter to mourn and celebrate the life of the iconic actor. US Rep. Maxine Waters wrote that Tyson was "one of the most profound, talented, & celebrated actors in the industry. She was a serious actor, beautiful & spiritual woman who had unlocked the key to longevity in the way she lived her life. Forever all my love & respect."Shonda Rhimes, who worked with Tyson on How to Get Away With Murder, wrote, "She was an extraordinary person. And this is an extraordinary loss. She had so much to teach. And I still have so much to learn. I am grateful for every moment. Her power and grace will be with us forever."
Earlier this month, the New York Times published an interview with Tyson while she was promoting her new memoir. When asked about whether she was afraid of death, the actor replied, “I’m not scared of death. I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about?”
“[People] just think they know death because other people say it is something to be scared of, but they don’t know that it is a frightening thing. Do you?” Tyson added. “People say it is this and it is that. But they don’t know. They’ve not been there. I’ve not been there. I’m not in a hurry to go either! I take it a day at a time, David, and I’m grateful for every day that God gives me.”