Cicely Tyson Dies At 96: 10 Things To Know About The Legendary Actress
Legend. Icon. Queen. There are many words that describe trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson. While accurate, they barely scratch the surface. It defies logic but it felt like Tyson would live forever. She was just as vibrant and beautiful at 96 as she’d been throughout her entire life, and Tyson’s fans fully expected the intentional artist to add centenarian to her list.
Even Tyson herself felt she had more to do. She said as much in an interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning that aired two days before her death. She spoke about her newly released memoir, “Just As I Am” which details her storied life and historic career.
Seated at the Abyssinian Baptist Church where she worshipped before the pandemic, Tyson said there was a reason she was still here when so many close to her had gone on to glory. In fact, Tyson had hinted that there was a project in the works that she had to be tight-lipped about, according to King. She had book talks scheduled with Tyler Perry.
In an unexpected plot twist, Cicely Tyson died on Thursday, Jan. 28. After she had blessed the world with her immense talent, dignity, grace and resilience for more than 70 years, it seems her work was indeed done and the time for her final curtain call set.
She left a legacy in which her real lived experiences rival any character she’s ever played. Here are 10 things to know about the incomparable Cicely Tyson.
1. Daughter of Caribbean immigrants born and raised in Harlem
Cicely Tyson was born in East Harlem, New York on Dec. 19, 1924. The daughter of West Indian immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, Tyson was the youngest of three children, according to the New York Times.
Her father, William Tyson, was a painter, carpenter and pushcart operator, while her mother, Theodesia Tyson, was a domestic worker. Cicely Tyson contributed to the household by selling shopping bags on street corners. Her parents divorced early in life and her mother became the sole caretaker.
After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School, Cicely Tyson became a secretary for the American Red Cross. However, she realized it wasn’t her calling. She said she made a dramatic announcement to her co-workers one day.
“I’m just sure God didn’t put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter the rest of my life,” Tyson recalled saying.
2. Became a model before venturing into acting
After quitting her job as a secretary, Tyson began modeling in the 1950s. She told King she was walking down the street one day when someone stopped her and asked who her agent was.
She went on to become a top featured model for Ebony, Jet and other popular magazines. Tyson also walked various runways and was featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other major magazines.
Eventually Tyson became disenchanted with modeling because she “felt like a machine,” she told TIME.
3. Overcame obstacles to play iconic roles including being kicked out of the house by her mother
She experienced challenges along the way, including her staunchly religious mother kicking her out of the house for pursuing acting.
“Suddenly I found something that I loved to do and I had a child to support. My mother, she thought that I was going to live in the den of iniquity because we grew up in the slums, lots of prostitutes walking up and down the street and that’s all she knew about movies,” Tyson said.
After not speaking for two years, Tyson eventually proved her mother wrong and their relationship was repaired. When she won her Emmy for Miss Jane Pittman, she looked into the camera smiling and said, “You see, Mom, it wasn’t really a den of iniquity after all.”
Tyson also recalled being sexually assaulted by well-known acting coach Paul Mann. However, she said she refused to let anything stop her.
“I went back to get what I was told I needed in order to achieve what I wanted,” Tyson told King of her returning to Mann’s class. “And I think of all the many young Black women who go through that and are devastated by it and it kills their dream. I was not going to let that happen to me.”
4. Cicely Tyson was selective, turned down lucrative roles if she felt they demeaned Black women
Known for her intentionality when selecting roles, Cicely Tyson was brave enough to reject work at a time when Black people were often relegated to portraying negative stereotypes onscreen.
“I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a Black woman,” Cicely Tyson once said in a 1997 article in the Bergen (New Jersey) Record, according to Bloomberg. “And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me. So, aren’t you amazed I’m still here?”
When speaking with King, she recalled an experience she had with a white reporter when being interviewed for her breakout role as Rebecca in the 1972 film “Sounder” that made her vow to use her platform responsibly.
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According to Tyson, the reporter told her he realized he had “a bit of bigotry” because he took issue with her son in the movie calling her onscreen husband Daddy. Tyson said she asked the reporter if he had children and when he confirmed he did, she asked what his children called him. His answer: “Daddy.” Tyson said it was a revelatory moment for her.
“I thought my God, this man is thinking that we’re not human beings and I made up my mind that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress and that I would use my career as my platform,” Tyson told King. She’d reiterated the position many times in prior interviews stating, “There were a number of issues I wanted to address. And I wanted to use my career as a platform.”
Due to her unwillingness to compromise her integrity, Tyson didn’t work as often as she could have. “The choices of roles I made had to do with educating and entertaining. And as a result I found myself working only every two or three years,” she once said.
However, Tyson said she had no regrets over her career choices. In 1974, she doubled down on her stance in People Magazine.
“The lesser of two evils for me is to wait, rather than do something that isn’t right,” Tyson said. “Producers know how I feel, and they’re very cautious about sending me things, although I read everything I get. They either make my skin tingle or my stomach churn. I’m really tired of the assumption that n—gers don’t like nothin’ but sex and violence.”
5. Tyson was married to legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis
Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis had a decades-long romance and were married for seven years from 1981 to 1987.
They first became involved in the 1960s when Davis was in the midst of divorcing his then-wife Frances Davis. He announced in 1968 that he would marry Tyson when the divorce was final, telling Jet, “I’m very much in love with Cicely. She is a wonderful woman, the greatest.”
However, Davis married singer Betty Davis in 1968 instead. He filed for divorce from Davis in 1969 and he and Tyson rekindled their romance in 1978. They were married at Bill Cosby’s house by then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, but ultimately divorced.
Though Tyson and Davis had a tumultuous relationship due to his infidelity and drug addiction, Tyson said in her memoir that he never used drugs in front of her.
“In all my years with Miles, never once did he shoot up, snort cocaine, or even smoke a reefer in my presence. I’m sure Miles must’ve shot up or snorted in his bathroom, but he left no sign of it, clearing away any paraphernalia. He knew how much I despised drugs. Also, my religious upbringing ensured I had nothing to do with them. I still don’t,” Tyson wrote.
She maintains she has never loved anyone the way she loved Davis and noted that he apologized on his deathbed for all the pain he caused her.
“People who hurt, it’s always the person that is closest to them that they hurt and I was in love with him. He was a beautiful human being,” Tyson said.
6. Cicely Tyson blazed trails by winning honors and awards well into her 90s
A walking portrait of beauty, style, grace and integrity, Tyson wove her own path to success.
Aside from the movie “Sounder”, Tyson starred in an array of acclaimed TV, film and Broadway productions including “The Blacks” in 1961, “A Man Called Adam” in 1966, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in 1974, “Roots” in 1977, “King” and “A Woman Called Moses” in 1978, “The Marva Collins Story” in 1981, “A Lesson Before Dying” in 1999, “The Help” in 2011, “Trip to Bountiful” in 2014 and “How to Get Away With Murder” in 2015, along with many others.
Over the course of her career, Tyson earned awards and accolades, continuing to break barriers well into her 90s. Among her awards are three Emmy awards, Kennedy Center Honors, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.
Tyson became the oldest person to win a Tony Award at age 88 in 2013. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 by President Barack Obama and became first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar in 2018.
7. Inspired a generation of Black actresses
She inspired a generation of Black actresses and gave them hope they could follow in her footsteps.
“She’s our Meryl Streep,” Vanessa Williams told Essence Magazine in 2013. “She was the person you wanted to be like in terms of an actress, in terms of the roles she got and how serious she took her craft. She still is.”
In Dec. 2020, “Black Panther” actress Lupita Nyong’o said of Tyson, “Without the gains of women like her, women like me would have much greater pains to bear in the arts.”
Ashley Williams, an actress from Miami of Jamaican descent whose series, “Double Cross” is making waves with audiences, noted the impact Tyson had on her.
“When you cry over a person, you’ve never met but had the reach to touch your soul anyways. That’s God,” Williams wrote on Instagram. “People aren’t possessions to be had. Only to be experienced. The experiences we have all gained because of the assignment on your life to be brought into this world and do what you did is the epitome of a real impact and when we meet one day, I shall tell you of how strong your impact was on me.”
8. First cousin of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan
With such a stellar career, Tyson had many famous friends but she also had famous family members. She was the first cousin of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.
9. Lauded as much for her off-screen persona as her onscreen talent
As tributes pour in for Tyson, it is evident she was just as loved for who she was offscreen as the roles she selected to play onscreen. LeVar Burton, who co-starred with Tyson in “Roots,” said it was Tyson’s entire being that made her special.
“What struck me every time I spent time with Cicely Tyson was not necessarily her star power—though that was evident enough—it was her humanity. Just by walking into a room, she had this way of elevating everyone around her,” Michelle Obama wrote on Instagram.
“That was part of her gift was her access to humanity. She was that deep well of strength and resilience and elegance and grace and beauty and her talent was her ability to effortlessly access all of that humanity,” Burton said.
Entertainment mogul Tyler Perry was very close to Tyson. “She was the grandmother I never had and the wisdom tree that I could always sit under to fill my cup. My heart breaks in one beat, while celebrating her life in the next,” Perry wrote on Instagram. “Well, I think it’s safe to say you have done all you were put here to do, and we are all better for it.”
10. Released ‘Just As I Am’ memoir 2 days before her death
Two days before Cicely Tyson died, she released a memoir of her life entitled, “Just As I Am.” The book is already sold out on Amazon. It is intriguing to readers because Tyson was always very reticent about her personal life but she opened up more than ever in the work.
The Washington Post revered the book in a review.
“’Just as I Am’ is a 400-page chronicle of a history as American as apple pie, as Black as the dead of night, as rich, surely, as Tyson’s favorite meals, oxtails and okra, cooked up by her late ex-husband Miles Davis,” the Post wrote. “While undoubtedly personal — or ‘plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside,’ as Tyson writes in the book’s introduction via her skilled collaborator Michelle Burford — it’s a universal accounting of just how far we’ve come in Tyson’s near-century of life, and how far we still must go.”
The book is “packed with details from Tyson’s personal and professional journeys few have known” and details how Tyson “accomplished all of it against a backdrop of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and sexism that many are just now recognizing still exists,” according to the review.
A tweet, apparently by Tyson and sent posthumously, encourages readers to draw hope from her experiences. “I hope that my book inspires you all to take stock of your own wonderful journey, and the blessings that lie there,” the tweet from Tyson’s account says. The tweet has since been removed.