Renowned actress Cicely Tyson passed away on Thursday afternoon at the age of 96, just days after her memoir, entitled “Just As I Am,” was published.
In a statement announcing her passing, Ms. Tyson’s manager Larry Thompson wrote:
“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, who got her start as a fashion model in her 20s, has been blazing trails for Black actors ever since the beginning of her career. One of her earliest roles, as a star in the CBS series East Side/West Side, made her the first African-American actor to star in a television drama. Also early in her career, Tyson was a member of the original cast of Jean Genet’s off-broadway musical The Blacks, acting alongside African American artistic legends including Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones.
In a recent interview with NPR about her memoir, Tyson said that she knew acting was her calling when she “learned that [she] could speak through other people.”
“I was a very shy child. I was an observer. I would sit and observe and listen and watch people’s actions in order to understand what they were. I wanted to know what prompted them to say and do the things that they did...
I never spoke ... but I was a great observer.”
Two of Tyson’s most notable projects include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the 1974 television movie that won her two Emmys, and Sounder, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Throughout Tyson’s long and prolific career, she starred in films such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and made memorable television performances in the miniseries Roots, as well as the Shonda Rhimes drama How To Get Away With Murder.
(Viola Davis, who portrayed Tyson’s daughter in HTGAWM, said once that seeing Tyson on screen in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman inspired her as a child. “She was the first actress that I saw when I was 6, 7 years old that — where I saw craft... Where I saw the magic of transformation.”)
Three decades after her last role on-stage in 1983, Tyson returned to the theater to portray Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful in 2013, a performance that won her the Tony for Best Actress in a Play. During her acceptance speech, Tyson said:
“It’s been thirty years since I stood on the stage. I really didn’t think it would happen again in my lifetime. And I was pretty comfortable with that. Except that I had this burning desire to do just one more. ‘One more great role,’ I said. I didn’t want to be greedy, I just wanted one more.”
(Her final stage role was actually in The Gin Game, in which she starred once again alongside James Earl Jones.)
Ms. Tyson was the kind of artist who was truly once in a lifetime—her beauty and poise, the raw and stunning emotion she brought to her acting, and the significance of the roles she chose as a Black woman on screen. Throughout her sixty-year career, she brought countless characters to life with her evocative and brilliant acting, her wit and precision allowing her to excel in roles ranging from the comedic to the dramatic. There was truly nothing Cicely Tyson couldn’t do.
In an interview from just a few days ago about her new memoir, Gayle King asked Ms. Tyson what she would want people to remember about her when her time comes. Her response? “I done my best. That’s all.”
Rest well Ms. Cicely Tyson, knowing that we will forever be grateful for all that you’ve done, and all that you gave us.