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 on January 28, 2021, at the age of 96. Her death was announced by Larry Thompson, her longtime manager, who did not specify the cause.
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“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.
Born on December 19, 1924 in East Harlem to West Indian immigrant parents, Tyson rose from humble beginnings. After graduating from high school she worked as a secretary for the American Red Cross before becoming a model; at the top of her game she appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She studied at the Actors Studio and with Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll, who featured Tyson as Barbara Allen in a 1959 Off Broadway revival of the musical The Dark of the Moon. She segued into the variety show Talent ’59 on Broadway and appeared in a production of Jolly’s Progress in which she also understudied Eartha Kitt, before a role in The Blacks ignited her stage career.
In 1961 Tyson was one of the original cast members in The Blacks, which ran for two years at the St. Mark’s Playhouse. Her co-stars included Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. The role of Virtue won her the Vernon Rice Award, a feat she repeated for the 1962 production of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. She starred with Diana Sands in the 1963 Broadway production of Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, which closed during a newspaper strike, and later that year appeared Off Broadway in The Blue Boy in Black with Billy Dee Williams. She moved on to Carroll’s musical Trumpets of the Lord as well as the 1966 production of A Hand Is at the Gate, the 1968 play Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights and the 1969 program of Lorraine Hansberry readings To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
Interspersed with her stage gigs, Tyson appeared in a number of television shows, including a dramatic presentation of Brown Girl, Brown Stones in 1960 and Between Yesterday and Today. East Side/West Side star George C. Scott, having been impressed by her performance in The Blacks, asked for her to play his assistant in the 1963 CBS series.
Tyson was active in charity and arts organizations including Urban Gateways, the Human Family Institute and the American Film Institute. She received awards from the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP as well as the Capitol Press Award.
The actress was one of 25 Black women honored for their contributions to art, entertainment and civil rights as part of Oprah Winfrey’s 2005 Legends Ball.