Cicely Tyson, Actress and Emmy Winner, Dead at 96

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Legendary actress and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Cicely Tyson died on Thursday at the age of 96.

"With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon," Tyson's family said, via her manager, Larry Thompson. "At this time, please allow the family their privacy.  A formal statement and details will follow."

In his own statement, 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."

Tyson was an icon of television, film and Broadway, having won Emmy, Tony and Screen Actors Guild awards. Born in Harlem, New York, to immigrant parents from the West Indies, she first entered the limelight as a model, appearing on the cover of Ebony magazine, and got into acting through roles on NBC’s Frontiers of Faith and plays including The Blacks.

But it was the role of Kunta Kinte’s mother, Binta, in Roots -- the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel -- which saw her make her mark. “No matter where I go in the world, they will say to me, ‘Roots!'” Tyson said in a 2014 interview for Oprah’s Master Class.

Tyson’s rise in the acting world continued as she gained critical acclaim for playing Rebecca Morgan in 1972's Sounder, earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. She then took home two Emmy Awards for her portrayal of a young slave in the 1974 television movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

By 1982, Tyson’s contribution to expanding the role of females in showbiz was recognized with her Women in Film Crystal Award.

Meanwhile, she married jazz musician Miles Davis in 1981, having previously appeared on the cover of Davis’ 1967 record, Sorcerer. Their marriage, which ended in 1988, was tumultuous, Tyson said.

“There are so many facets to a dual life that is completely alien to most people,” Tyson said while discussing Davis with CNN in 2013. “There have been some of the most incredible moments afforded me through him. Every moment to me is a learning experience. Once I have experienced [the negative] and lived through it and reached another level of understanding of human beings, especially, particularly talented ones who don’t know themselves how rich they are, then I am the better for that experience.”

More recently, Tyson played Constantine Bates in 2011’s The Help, had a recurring role as Viola Davis’ TV mom, Ophelia Harkness, on How to Get Away With Murder (earning five Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for the part), and won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013 following her performance in The Trip to Bountiful.

In 2016, Tyson was among a select group of 21 actors, musicians, athletes and innovators awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor and Tyson received hers alongside Ellen DeGeneres, Diana Ross, Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen.

“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the whole course of history,” Obama said at the presentation. “Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars. The daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, she was raised by a hardworking and religious mother who cleaned houses and forbade her children to attend the movies. But once she got her education and broke into the business, Cicely made a conscious decision not just to say lines, but to speak out.”

Obama also noted Tyson’s commitment to empowering women and advancing equality for all Americans -- especially women of color.

“’I would not accept roles,’ she said, ‘unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light, [and] dealt with us as human beings,’” Obama recounted. “And from Sounder, to The Trip to Bountiful, to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Cicely's convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family. And she’s just gorgeous. Yes, she is.”

“I was so embarrassed, I was red as a beet!” Tyson admitted, when later asked by Variety how it felt to be complimented by the then-president.

Among her impressive accomplishments, Tyson was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Columbia University, and had her hand and footprints cemented outside the TLC Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California. In 2018, she became the first-ever Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar for her storied career, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. In 2020, she was also chosen to be inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame and received a Career Achievement Peabody Award.

Laughing off the idea of retirement during her Variety interview in 2016, she contemplated her future, saying, “I don’t think too much about what I’m doing next. I spend my time focusing on who I want to be next.”

Just this week, Tyson released her memoir, Just As I Am, written with collaborator Michelle Burford, sharing an intimate look back at her life, "plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside."

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