Cicely Tyson, the legendary actress known for her many film, stage and TV roles including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and for exemplifying what it means to be a strong Black lead, died at the age of 96 on Thursday. While she lived a long life, filled with a storied career unlike any other, her death was unexpected, especially given the fact that she was still working and had a visible presence in Hollywood thanks to the release of her memoir, Just As I Am, two days before her death.
Prior to that, Tyson last appeared in the Tyler Perry film A Fall From Grace, and was a regular on the OWN series Cherish the Day, both marking her final on-screen appearances. They followed her recent, award-winning streak as Viola Davis’ mother on the ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, earning her five consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations.
In total, Tyson merited 16 Emmy nominations and three wins for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She also earned an Academy Award nomination -- her only one -- for her breakout film role in 1972’s Sounder and was eventually bestowed with an honorary Oscar in 2018. That came five years after winning a Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful in 2013, marking a resurgence in acclaim and celebration for the actress, nearly 60 years into her acting career.
Her other notable projects included the original Roots miniseries The Marva Collins Story, King, and A Woman Called Moses, which is still one of the very few on-screen portrayals of Harriet Tubman to this day.
While a formidable star on-screen, “It wasn't money that I was interested in,” Tyson told ET while reflecting on her career at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. “I was interested in making an impact on the people of the world, about us as a race of people.”
And that she did, breaking down barriers for Black people in Hollywood “by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people,” the New York Times writes, adding: “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.”
In addition to being an actress, Tyson was always regarded as an activist, and was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for her contributions to the entertainment industry as well as her continued fight for civil rights. In another interview with ET, Tyson said, “I’m a fighter, I was born a fighter, I will die a fighter. And I will fight all obstacles and probably die trying. But it’s not going to stop me.”
While there’s been no shortage of tributes, stories and remembrances shared online, several of her peers, including 2020 Tony Award nominee Blair Underwood, esteemed choreographer Debbie Allen, CBS This Morning host Gayle King and others spoke with ET’s Kevin Frazier and Nischelle Turner about memories of working with her and her lasting legacy.
"She put in the work and earned everything she achieved in her life," Frazier expressed on Friday's show, with Turner adding, "Ms. Tyson was 48 when her career took off in Sounder. She earned an Oscar nomination, and then, she never stopped working."
On Tyson’s final days
Gayle King: “She was so engaged and so full of life and she was talking about things, things that she still wanted to do. She said, 'I still want to direct.' She said in her book, it’s better than sitting at home leaving butt prints. Those were her words. She still felt that she had other things that she wanted to do, and she looked forward to doing.”
“On one hand, you know, I grieve her passing. But on the other hand, I celebrate her life. That I feel so grateful and so happy that I got to spend time with her a week ago."
On Tyson’s groundbreaking career
King: “She played a teenager to over the age of 100... That just speaks to the talent, the versatility of Cicely Tyson. You know what else I like so much is that there will be those of us who know her from Jane Pittman. There will be those of us who know her from Scandal. There will be those of us who know her from Tyler Perry movies and [playing] Viola Davis' mom on How to Get Away With Murder.”
Debbie Allen: “The year we had Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson both nominated for an Academy Award, that was big, that was huge for all of us. It was, just for me as an artist, it said, ‘Ooh yeah, we can go all the way!’ The road is opening up and the road has opened and closed and opened and closed and right now it’s kind of open but we know it’s going to close again, so go as fast as you can while it’s open is kind of how it is for us.”
Blair Underwood: “You know what made her great is I think her tenacity, her persistence, her drive, her love of life. She lived life, she lived life out loud. I mean, she did it boldly. I mean, look at her fashion. I mean, look, she started off as a model in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So her whole sense of life was about taking a bite out of it, making a statement about being bold and being unapologetic."
Laurence Fishburne: "There's a special elegance, and this is the thing about Cicely, for me, I was thinking about why she was so important to us and what she means to us and she was obviously a queen. But she gave us, as Black people, and Black women in particular, an example of how to appreciate our own beauty and aesthetics and how to celebrate ourselves as Black people and as human beings. She gave us an example of how to use our gifts, whether they are intellectual or spiritual or physical or emotional to express our humanity."
"She used her beauty, her intelligence, her strength, her passion to create positive images and templates for people to see," he continued. "You can't be what you can't see and she gave us an example of how to be the best that we can possibly be. She was totally invested. She was a consummate actor. I mean, there was nobody better. This woman really, really was a standard bearer and a guiding light for so many of us."
On working with Tyson
LeVar Burton: “I am not the actor that I am without her presence in my life. I am not the professional that I am. [Roots] was my very first job. My very first day as a professional actor. Maya Angelou played my grandmother and Cicely Tyson played my mom. And they schooled me. They took me under their wing and they taught me what it meant to be a professional actor in this business and that very first day, there was a moment. Because, you know, it was Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson and I was desperate to try and impress them and win their approval.”
Ben Vereen: “What I got from her is be careful about the roles you take. You have an image to hold up, you know, and I will treasure that. I’ll treasure that.”
Underwood: “The last project we did was Trip to Bountiful. We did the telefilm version for Lifetime and also I did the tour with her and Vanessa Williams. And I’ve got to tell you, she did 200 productions on Broadway and never missed a performance. We did six weeks in L.A., four weeks in Boston and she never missed a performance. Always on time, she's the ultimate professional.”
“My biggest lesson from her was just love life, take care of yourself, you know… She said just be careful what you put inside your body. You know, you’ll last longer. So I learned a lot about her, from her about the craft to the art of acting, the work but also how to live life, how to walk through life."
Fishburne: "I'm grateful I had the opportunity. I worked with her three times and became friends with her. And interestingly enough, I was supposed to work with her, the first time, I was supposed to work with her way back in the '80s and we were going to do a film that was called Desert Rose. It never got made."
"She had the power to help you transform, because we were really down, man. We thought this movie was going to be our opportunity. We thought it was going to push our careers forward…And she was like, 'No, no my darlings. No no, we have to lift our spirits. What we can do is we can go immerse ourselves in our art and our culture and celebrate other great artists and appreciate them and that will lift our spirits and help us sustain ourselves. And that's the kind of person she was."
On Tyson’s lasting legacy
Allen: “How do you explain the power of the sun? How do you explain the cresting wind across your face? You experience it. She was who she was and she was very real and it’s not something that you can manufacture. You are either that or you’re not. She was the queen. She was a goddess. And you either have risen to that place what we call the GOAT, the greatest of all times, and you can’t teach that. I’m at the Debbie Allen Dance and I’m teaching children, but I can’t teach them greatness. They have to take something in the world, make it important to them and then give the world something that the world acknowledges them for. That is who she was, that's what she did.”
“Cicely’s legacy was that she was one of the greatest artists of our time, who used the power of her platform to move the thermometer of justice and social change.”
Vereen: “Oh, footprints in the sand. The elegance, the grace, and beauty. Intellectually, just amazing. It’ll be her legacy, that’s what I want her to be remembered by.”
Underwood: “The legacy of Cicely Tyson was that she was a trailblazer. She came along when she did in the '50s and the '60s with her contemporaries -- Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte -- and they broke barriers for artists of color and also for women. Miss Tyson did it with aplomb and she did it with strength and she did it with foresight and vision. Her legacy is that of excellence.”
King: “I feel conflicted about the emotions I am feeling this moment because how can you not smile when you think about Cicely Tyson? She was grace. She was class. She was essential. That's what Cicely Tyson was.”
Burton: “She's the poster child for Black excellence. She really is and I think part of her legacy is that authenticity and her humanity. And that was her gift as an actor, that she was able to imbue every single character that she played with such humanity, such dignity. They would get sprung absolutely from the center of her own heart and she was able to touch the world with the tenderness and the truth of who she was.”
Fishburne: "I can only say that her legacy will be encapsulated in her work that she has left us. The beauty and the majesty of her fierce intelligence and seemingly sort of untireless strength. This woman was 96 when she passed. I worked with her as recently as 2016, when she was 91. So she will continue to be a source of inspiration and aspiration. She will continue to teach, to move and to inspire people, I think for generations to come. There's a timelessness about Cicely. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to spend the kind of time with her and just to be in her presence so often."