Cicely Tyson, an Actress Who Shattered Stereotypes, Dies at 96

In a remarkable career of many decades, she refused to take parts that demeaned Black people and won a Tony, Emmys and an honorary Oscar.

Cicely Tyson in London in 1973. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral.
Cicely Tyson in London in 1973. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral.Credit…Dennis Oulds/Central Press, via Getty Images

Cicely Tyson, the stage, screen and television actress whose vivid portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in the dramatic arts of the 1970s, propelling her to stardom and fame as an exemplar for civil rights, died on Thursday. She was 96.

Her death was announced by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson, who provided no other details.

In a remarkable career of seven decades, Ms. Tyson broke ground for serious Black actors by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people. She urged Black colleagues to do the same, and often went without work. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral, and insisted that African-Americans, even if poor or downtrodden, should be portrayed with dignity.

Her chiseled face and willowy frame, striking even in her 90s, became familiar to millions in more than 100 film, television and stage roles, including some that had traditionally been given only to white actors. She won three Emmys and many awards from civil rights and women’s groups, and at 88 became the oldest person to win a Tony, for her 2013 Broadway role in a revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.”

At 93, she won an honorary Oscar, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and into the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. She also won a career achievement Peabody Award in 2020.

Despite the gathering force of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, there were few substantial roles for talented, relatively unknown Black actresses like Ms. Tyson. She appeared in Broadway plays, television episodes and minor movie roles before playing Portia, a supporting but notable part in the 1968 film version of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”

But in 1972, in a film called “Sounder,” she found what she was looking for: a leading role with dignity. It was as Rebecca, the wife of a Louisiana sharecropper (played by Paul Winfield) who is imprisoned in 1933 for stealing food for his children. She rises to the challenge — cleaning houses, tilling fields, sweltering under the sun in a worn dress and braided cornrows — a Black woman whose excruciating beauty lies in toil and poverty.

“The story in ‘Sounder’ is a part of our history, a testimony to the strength of humankind,” Ms. Tyson told The New York Times after receiving rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for best actress. “Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”

In 1974, Ms. Tyson stunned a national television audience with her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of a former slave in the CBS special “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Born into slavery before the Civil War, Miss Pittman survives for more than a century to see the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At 110, she tells her story, the searing experience of a Black woman in the South. Then, in her only gesture of protest, she sips from a whites-only drinking fountain.

Preparing for her metamorphosis, Ms. Tyson visited nursing homes to study the manifestations of old age: the frail shoulders and shaking hands, the unfocused sparkling eyes and slurred speech, the struggle for names and important thoughts just beyond reach.

“Cicely Tyson transforms that role into the kind of event for which awards are made,” John J. O’Connor wrote in The Times, citing her passage from young innocence through cycles of age and maturity to shriveled, knowing antiquity. “She absorbs herself completely into Miss Jane, in the process creating a marvelous blend of sly humor, shrewd perceptions and innate dignity.”

Ms. Tyson later found other suitable television roles: as Kunta Kinte’s mother in a mini-series based on Alex Haley’s “Roots” in 1977; as Coretta Scott King in the 1978 NBC mini-series “King,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final years; as Harriet Tubman, whose Underground Railroad spirited slaves to freedom, in “A Woman Called Moses” (1978); and as a Chicago teacher devoted to poor children in “The Marva Collins Story” (1981). In 1994, she won a supporting actress Emmy for her portrayal of Castalia in the mini-series “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

For many Americans, Ms. Tyson was an idol of the Black Is Beautiful movement, regal in an African turban and caftan, her face gracing the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines. She was a vegetarian, a teetotaler, a runner, a meditator and, from 1981 to 1989, the wife of the jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. Since the ’60s she had inspired Black American women to embrace their own standards of beauty — including helping to popularize the Afro.WATCHING: Recommendations on the best TV shows and films to stream and watch.Sign Up

“She’s our Meryl Streep,” Vanessa Williams told Essence 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.”

Ms. Tyson eventually appeared in 29 films; at least 68 television series, mini-series and single episodes; and 15 productions on and off Broadway, including “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright” (1962) and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969).

In “The Corn Is Green” (1983), an Emlyn Williams play set in Wales, Ms. Tyson received mixed reviews as Miss Moffat, an English schoolteacher in a coal-mining town who awakens the minds of impoverished youngsters. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn played the part in earlier film and television adaptations.

After a three-decade absence from Broadway, Ms. Tyson returned in 2013 in a production of “The Trip to Bountiful,” playing Carrie Watts, an old woman, also conceived as a white character, who yearns to see her hometown before dying. Her performance won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.

“It’s been 30 years since I stood onstage; I really didn’t think it would happen again in my lifetime, and I was pretty comfortable with that,” Ms. Tyson said at the Tonys ceremony. “Except that I had this burning desire to do just one more. ‘One more great role,’ I said. I didn’t want to be greedy. I just wanted one more.”

And she appeared with James Earl Jones for nearly four months in 2015-16 in a Broadway revival of “The Gin Game,” D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 play about two elderly residents of a retirement home drawn together over a card table.

Mr. Jones, then 84, and Ms. Tyson, 90, were onstage for virtually all of its two-hour running time, as Charles Isherwood noted in a review for The Times. “These two superlative performers establish beyond doubt, if we needed any reminding, that great talent is ageless and ever-rewarding,” he said.

In January 2021, when she was 96, her memoir, “Just as I Am,” appeared, and in a pre-publication interview with The New York Times Magazine, she was asked if she had any advice for the young.

“It’s simple,” she said. “I try always to be true to myself. I learned from my mom: ‘Don’t lie ever, no matter how bad it is. Don’t lie to me ever, OK? You will be happier that you told the truth.’ That has stayed with me, and it will stay with me for as long as I’m lucky enough to be here.”

Cicely Tyson was born in East Harlem on Dec. 19, 1924, the youngest of three children of William and Theodosia (also known as Frederica) Tyson, immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Her father was a carpenter and painter, and her mother was a domestic worker. Her parents separated when she was 10, and the children were raised by a strict Christian mother who did not permit movies or dates.

After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School, Cicely became a model, appearing in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and elsewhere. In the 1940s, she studied at the Actors Studio. Her first role was on NBC’s “Frontiers of Faith” in 1951. Her disapproving mother kicked her out.

After small film and television parts in the 1950s, she joined James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. in the original New York cast of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” in 1961. It was the longest-running Off Broadway drama of the decade, running for 1,408 performances. Ms. Tyson played Stephanie Virtue, a prostitute, for two years, and won a Vernon Rice Award in 1962, igniting her career.

She helped found the Dance Theater of Harlem after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King. In 1994, an East Harlem building where she lived as a child was named for her; it and three others were rehabilitated for 58 poor families. In 1995, a magnet school she supported in East Orange, N.J., was renamed the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts.

Her later television roles included that of Ophelia Harkness in a half dozen episodes of the long-running ABC legal drama “How to Get Away With Murder,” for which she was nominated repeatedly for Emmys and other awards for outstanding guest or supporting actress (2015-19), and in the role of Doris Jones in three episodes of “House of Cards” (2016).

In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She was always reticent about her age, charity work and other personal details, like being a good-will ambassador for Unicef in 1985-86 and her marriage to Miles Davis, which ended in divorce.

But she was adamant about dramatic roles. “We Black actresses have played so many prostitutes and drug addicts and housemaids, always negative,” she told Parade magazine in 1972. “I won’t play that kind of characterless role any more, even if I have to go back to starving.”

And in November 2018, a month before she turned 94, Ms. Tyson received an honorary Oscar, a Governors Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In an emotional acceptance speech in Los Angeles, Ms. Tyson, whose highest accolade from the film industry had been her Oscar nomination in 1972, paid tribute to her mother, who had opposed her plan for a career as an entertainer.

“Mom, I know you didn’t want me to do this,” she said, “but I did, and here it is. I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this,” she told the audience. “This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-not.”

Azi Paybarah contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 29, 2021, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cicely Tyson, Regal Actress for Decades, Is Dead at 96. 

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