Entertainment Legend Cicely Tyson Dies at 96

Cicely Tyson, a gifted and versatile thespian, who graced the stage, screen and television has died. She was 96 years old.

L-R: William Augustine Tyson (father), Emily Rebecca Tyson (sister), Frederica Theodosia Tyson (mother), Melrose Emanuel Tyson (brother), and Cicely Tyson. ca 1927 (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

L-R: William Augustine Tyson (father), Emily Rebecca Tyson (sister), Frederica Theodosia Tyson (mother), Melrose Emanuel Tyson (brother), and Cicely Tyson. ca 1927 (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Tyson, a gifted and versatile thespian, who graced the stage, screen and television has died. She was 96 years old.

Born in New York City on December 18, 1924, Tyson was the second child and eldest daughter of William Augustine Tyson (1897 – 1961) and the former Frederica Theodosia Huggins (1897 – 1974), who were born on the island of Nevis, but married in the United States. Miss Tyson was very close to her father, but after her parents divorced, she was raised by her mother. Mrs. Tyson was very strict and wouldn’t allow her daughter to have much of a social life outside of school and church. She wasn’t allowed to play with the neighborhood children, movies were forbidden and she wasn’t allowed to go on dates until she was 17 years old.

Just after her eighteenth birthday, Tyson married Kenneth Franklin. Less than two years later, her husband abandoned the family, leaving her to raise a child alone.

Cicely Tyson on the cover of the Miles Davis album, Sorcerer (1967). (Columbia Records)

Cicely Tyson on the cover of the Miles Davis album, Sorcerer (1967). (Columbia Records)

A turning point in her life came when she was spotted by a photographer for Ebony magazine, who, struck by her striking features, encouraged her to become a model. Images of her would soon be featured regularly in the magazine and elsewhere. For example, she’s featured on the cover of Sorcerer, a 1967 album by jazz great Miles Davis.

By the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, she began making in-roads as an actor, appearing in New York theatre, film and television.

In 1961, when Tyson was cast as Stephanie Virtue Diop in the off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genet’s Les Nègres (The Blacks), she took a huge risk that could have severely damaged her career. Not so much to make a political statement, but because she thought it was appropriate for the role as an African, she cut her processed hair and showed up to a rehearsal with her natural hair. Thinking the producers would be furious at her decision to wear an Afro hairstyle, she was pleasantly surprised when they wholeheartedly supported her decision. In fact, they confessed that they wanted her to wear a natural hairstyle, but were afraid to ask. The Blacks would go on to be the longest running off-Broadway non musical plays of the decade. The play ran for 1,408 performances and won three Obie Awards, including one for Best New Play.

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1962) cast (L-R): Robert Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Vinnette Carroll, Ellen Holly, Bill Gunn, Melvin Stewart, and Kelly Marie Berry. (PHOTO: Bert Andrews)

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1962) cast (L-R): Robert Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Vinnette Carroll, Ellen Holly, Bill Gunn, Melvin Stewart, and Kelly Marie Berry. (PHOTO: Bert Andrews)

After her appearances in The Blacks, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Trinidadian playwright Errol John, and Peter S. Feibleman’s Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, television producer David Susskind hired her in the role of Jane Foster, the secretary of social worker Neil Brock (played by George C. Scott), in East Side/West Side on CBS. This was the first time that a Black person would be cast as a regular on a prime time dramatic network television series. [Previously, Blacks were only cast as regulars in situation comedies such as Beulah, and Amos & Andy]. This groundbreaking series tackled such controversial topics as urban plight, housing discrimination, and the welfare system. Despite airing for only the 1963-64 season, the series received eight Emmy Award nominations and featured a slew of actors who would rise to prominence including James Earl Jones, Diana Sands, Gene Hackman, Earle Hyman, Martin Sheen, Ruby Dee, Carroll O’Connor, and Louis Gossett, Jr.

CicelyTyson and Kevin Hooks in a scene from Sounder (1972).  (20th Century-Fox)

CicelyTyson and Kevin Hooks in a scene from Sounder (1972). (20th Century-Fox)

Gradually building a diverse and impressive body of work, Tyson became a bona fide star in 1972, when she appeared as Rebecca Lee, the wife of a sharecropper during the Great Depression, who must hold the family together when her husband goes to jail for stealing a loaf of bread in Sounder. Highly praised by critics for her performance, both the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics selected her as the best actress of the year. She was also nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Despite all of the accolades she received for Sounder, Tyson would not work for two years. Dedicated to playing only strong and uplifting roles, Tyson would next appear in the television movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Tyson would receive not one, but two Emmys for her skillful performance as a 110-year-old former slave.

Cicely Tyson in 2016

Cicely Tyson in 2016

She remained active in the entertainment industry up until the end. Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am, was published on January 26, 2021, just two days before her death.

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