Cicely Tyson Dies: Trailblazing Film and TV Star Was 96

Cicely Tyson at the 10th Annual Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom on November 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, CA. (Credit: Deposit Photos)

Cicely Tyson, the iconic actress who broke barriers with her performances in such films as Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman died Thursday at age 96.

The groundbreaking performer’s death was announced in a statement by her manager, Larry Thompson, to the Associated Press.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” Thompson said.

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Tyson’s body of work spanned across the stage, film and television.

She was born in Harlem in 1924, and began her career as a model after being discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine. She was also a theater actress, appearing both on and off-Broadway.

The actress made the transition to television and film in the 1950s, with her first acting role in NBC’s Frontiers of Faith in 1951.

After a series of small parts, she landed a role as Portia in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968.

Tyson reached stardom with her role in the 1972 drama Sounder, in which she played Rebecca, the wife of a Black sharecropper (Paul Winfield) struggling to make ends meet during the Depression era in the South. Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her leading role in the film.

Cicely Tyson in Sounder (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Cicely Tyson is shown in the 1972 film Sounder. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

The actress won two Primetime Emmy Awards in 1974 — one for Best Actress in a Drama for her role as 110-year-old former slave Jane Pittman in the television movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and a Primetime Super Emmy Award for Actress of the Year given out at that year’s ceremony. Tyson won her third Emmy in 1994 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role in the CBS miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

In 1997, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Cicely Tyson Star
Cicely Tyson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997. (Credit: Deposit Photos)

From 2015 to 2020, she was nominated in the Emmy category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Ophelia Harkness on How to Get Away with Murder.

In 2013, she received a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for her role as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful. She won the Tony at the age of 88, making her the oldest recipient of the award so far.

In 2019, she received an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her multiple contributions to the film industry.

Last year, Tyson was honored with a Peabody Award for Career Achievement and she also was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Her most recent roles were in Ava DuVernay’s 2020 anthology series Cherish the Day and in the 2020 Netflix film A Fall from Grace, which was produced, written, and directed by Tyler Perry.

Tyson’s other notable film credits included The River Niger, Fried Green Tomatoes, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, The Help, Alex Cross and Last Flag Flying.

After the news of her death, tributes started pouring in across social media from celebrities and fans.

Shonda Rhimes posted a photo with Tyson while both were smiling. She wrote on Twitter: “She was an extraordinary person. And this is an extraordinary loss. She had so much to teach. And I still have so much to learn. I am grateful for every moment. Her power and grace will be with us forever. #cicelytyson”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters tweeted: “So saddened to hear my friend #CicelyTyson has passed. One of the most profound, talented, & celebrated actors in the industry. She was a serious actor, beautiful & spiritual woman who had unlocked the key to longevity in the way she lived her life. Forever all my love & respect.”