Viola Davis Shares How Friend Cicely Tyson Became the 'Gold Standard' (Exclusive)

Davis also recalled her final three-hour phone call with the legendary actress.

For Black History Month, ET is honoring legends through the eyes of stars who are legends themselves.

Viola Davis is remembering her friend and mentor, Cicely Tyson. The Hollywood icon died at the age of 96 last month after a historic career. 

ET's Nischelle Turner spoke with Davis, 55, about Tyson's legacy, influence and friendship. The Oscar-winning actress first saw Tyson on the screen in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974 when Davis was just seven years old. 

"I saw just excellence. I saw magic," Davis tells ET. "The magic of what we do as artists... I was looking for my place in the world. And when I saw her, who looked like me, I found it." 

Davis noted that though Tyson is now known as a groundbreaking actress, she was met with criticism within the Black community during her first television role. 

"When she got her first show on television, she got a boatload of mail every single week from Black women saying that she was a horrible example for them," Davis says. "For wearing her hair short and nappy and 'how dare you look like that on national television,' that sort of self-hate that we adopted during that time. She was bigger than that. That she saw beyond that. I am sure stuff like that hurt her, but she knew that her legacy was bigger than that."

Beyond the influence that Tyson had on the screen, Davis, who co-starred with her in 2011's The Help and who played her daughter on the series How to Get Away With Murder, counted Tyson as a friend. 

In fact, the pair shared a three-hour conversation shortly before her death. 

"There was a sense in me that -- I felt like it would be our last conversation," Davis says of the call. "And I feel that way because of the content of what we talked about. You know, my favorite saying is that you can either leave something for people or you can leave something in people. And she wanted to just leave something in me. Everything that she talked about was so very personal. And it was like, 'Before I go, you need to know this for you to take this next step of your journey.' And I am eternally grateful for that. That, for me, is a lot like love."

Calling Tyson "the gold standard," Davis noted that she's not quite ready to step into the legendary actress' shoes. 

"I don't know if I have the bravery of Miss Tyson yet. I found her to be incredibly brave in how she's handled her career," she admits. "But along the journey, I just hope to channel the courage and bravery that she has. And once I really get that, which I feel like I'm pretty much there, then I feel like I really, really took that baton from her. 'Cause she did pass it." 

For the latest content celebrating Black History Month, please visit our Black History Month page, or read more in our Black Stories section. And don’t miss our Black History Month special on ET Live.


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