The world mourns the loss of iconic actress Cicely Tyson

Actress Cicely Tyson

Honorary Oscar winner Cicely Tyson passed away today at the age of 96. She was well known for her starring role in Sounder, which earned her an Academy Award nomination as well as her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and her recurring role on How to Get Away with Murder which earned five Emmy nominations. 

Tyson’s manager Larry Thompson confirmed the news in a statement but did not provide details of her death.

Thompson said “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing. 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.”

Earlier this week HarperCollins published Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am

Tyson’s compelling performance in Sounder, about a Depression-era sharecropper family who faces a major crisis earned her an Oscar nomination.

Tyson collected 16 Emmy nominations and won three, including two in 1974 for her spectacular performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she played a Southern woman who was born into slavery and joins the civil rights movement. She was the first Black woman to win a Lead Actress Emmy Award. 

Her 2019 Honorary Oscar (Governors Award) was the first presented to a Black woman in history. 

Tyson received her third Emmy Award for The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994) and also was nominated for her performances in Roots, King, Sweet Justice, The Marva Collins Story and A Lesson Before Dying.

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During her seven decade iconic career, Tyson appeared in dozens of films, TV series,  television films, and on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful in 2013. She might be recognizable by younger audiences for her role in Shonda Rhimes’ ABC drama How to Get Away with Murder, on which she recurred as Ophelia Harkness, the dementia-addled mother of lead character Annalise Harkness (Viola Davis).

She also was a regular on Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Cherish the Day, playing Miss Luma Lee Langston, a legendary star of stage and screen in decades past, in all eight episodes of the drama’s 2020 season.

Tyson was one of the few Black faces in the mainstream for many years, starting out as a secretary and model and going on to become one of the few Black individuals to work in major publications.

She was intentionally committed to presenting only positive images of Black women, which probably cost her some work in film and television. However, her work was widely recognized, and she was honored by the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP. She was an eight-time Image Award winner and 15-time nominee, and the recipient of the Crystal Stair Award from the National Council of Negro Women. In 1977, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In 2016, President Barack Obama presented Tyson with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her contribution to the arts and American culture. She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 2019 and received a Career Achievement Peabody Award last year. She also was lauded with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015 and received a  star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.

Born on December 19, 1924, the native New Yorker launched her TV career in 1951 with roles ranging from Naked City, I Spy and Mission: Impossible to Gunsmoke and a co-starring role opposite George C. Scott in the mid-’60s CBS drama series East Side/West Side. Three decades later, Tyson landed another regular role in the NBC legal drama Sweet Justice, playing a longtime civil rights activist. It lasted one season in 1994-95.

More recently, she appeared on the small screen on such popular drama series as Law & Order: SVU, House of Cards and Madam Secretary.

Tyson made her feature film debut in 1957’s Carib Gold and went on to appear in such films as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1967), George Cukor’s The Blue Bird (1976) , A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (1978) and 1981 Richard Pryor comedy Bustin’ Loose, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) and Best Picture Oscar nominee The Help (2011).

Tyson also appeared in a number of Broadway plays, including her starring role opposite James Earl Jones in The Gin Game and with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful which earned her a Tony Award for lead actress in a play. 

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She went on to reprise her role as Mrs. Carrie Watts for the 2014 Lifetime movie The Trip to Bountiful, for which she was also executive producer and earned Emmy nominations for that performance as well as for Outstanding Television Movie

Tyson was married to jazz legend Miles Davis for several years during the 1980s.

Twitter Tributes

Here is a sampling of the love pouring in for the legend on Twitter.