Trailblazing Hollywood Icon Cicely Tyson Dead at 96

Actress Cicely Tyson, who most recently starred in How to Get Away with Murder, has died at age 96. The award-winning star was a legend in the film industry and a pioneer for Black actresses.

By Lindsay Weinberg Jan 29, 2021 1:01 AMTags
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Cicely Tyson, the Emmy and Tony Award winning actress, has died. She was 96 years old.

E! News obtained a statement from her manager Larry Thompson announcing her passing on Thursday, Jan. 28. His statement read, "I have managed Miss Tyson's career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing." Thompson added, "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."

She released her memoir, Just As I Am, on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Tyson won an Emmy Award in 1974 for Best Lead Actress in a Drama for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and earned more than a dozen Emmy nominations since then, including five for her guest appearance in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder alongside Viola Davis.

She made history as a Black actress in the entertainment industry. After she was nominated for the Leading Actress in a Drama Series Emmy in 1995 for NBC's Sweet Justice, it took nearly two decades for another Black actress to be nominated in that category. Kerry Washington had the honor in 2013.

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The same year, Tyson took home the 2013 Tony for Lead Actress in a Play for The Trip to Bountiful.

To top off her career, she was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for the 1973 film Sounder about a sharecropper family.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM

More than 40 years later, she took home The Academy's Honorary Oscar, the first Black woman to do so, according to Harper's Bazaar. In her speech, she said, "This is the culmination of all those years of have and have not," and thanked her mom, Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg.

Fans also know the Harlem, New York, native for her roles in such classics as The Help, Fried Green TomatoesBecause of Winn-Dixie and Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Tyson is quoted on her book's website as saying, "Just As I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades."

The film legend went on, "Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and mother, a sister, and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by His hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say."

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Just three days ago, Tyler Perry noted how much he is looking forward to reading about her accomplished life. He wrote on Instagram, "I have wanted her to do this for many years and she finally has. At 90 (debatable) something years old, Ms. Cicely Tyson finally tells her story."

The mega-producer, who wrote her film Diary of a Mad Black Woman, continued, "Now listen to me, all of us who are complaining about where we are need to read this book. This woman is a national treasure that is still as sharp as ever and has gifted us with a peek into her life, her love, her struggles, and her hopes."

Former President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. He said at the ceremony, "In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history."

She was born in 1924 to West Indian parents. "I was a very shy child. If you got 15 minutes of words out of me, you got plenty," Tyson told Gayle King in an interview on Jan. 26, while promoting her memoir. "I sucked this finger until I was 12 years old. That's why I have these buck teeth." 

The trailblazer admitted she was kicked out of the house after pursuing acting: "Suddenly, I found something that I loved to do."

Bob Mahoney/Lifetime

Tyson went on to say she wanted to use "my career as my platform" throughout her life, in order to have Black people seen as human beings in society. 

She was married to the man she called the love of her life, American jazz musician Miles Davis, from 1981 to 1988. He died in 1991. As the author put it, "People who hurt, it's always the person that is closest to them that they hurt. And I was in love with him. He was a beautiful human being."

When King asked what it's like to be a legend, she responded, "I'm amazed every single day I live."

In 2007, E! News wrote the actress "isn't a legend—she's a pistol." Backstage at the 2007 Emmy Awards, she corrected a reporter that referred to the cast of Roots as guys. "Leslie Uggams and I," she said, "are ladies."

The star is survived by her niece, fellow actress Cathy Tyson, per Variety

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