Trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson dies aged 96

Keiran Southern, PA Los Angeles Correspondent
·4-min read

Trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson, known for roles in Sounder and The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, has died at the age of 96, her manager said.

Tyson, a former fashion model, became known for playing strong African American women over a glittering career spanning seven decades.

She won three Emmys, a SAG Award, a Tony and an honorary Academy Award.

Obit Cicely Tyson
Trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson, known for roles in Sounder and The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, has died at the age of 96 (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Tyson died peacefully on Thursday, according to a statement. No cause of death was given.

Larry Thompson, Tyson’s manager, said: “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.”

Born in Harlem, Tyson started her career in fashion after being spotted by a photographer for Ebony magazine.

Her first film role came in 1956 B-movie Carib Gold and she followed it up with a ground-breaking stint on gritty TV drama East Side/West Side.

Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson was known for her vivid portrayals of African American women and was praised for breaking down barriers for stars who came after her (AP Photo, File)

The series first aired in 1963 and marked the first time an African American starred in a television drama.

In 1972 came the role that brought Tyson widespread fame and acclaim. She played Rebecca Morgan in Sounder, a film about black sharecroppers trying to survive the Great Depression.

Tyson was nominated for both the Bafta and Oscar for best actress.

She won two Emmys for starring as a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 TV film The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman and in 2016 was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the highest civilian honour in the US.

At the time, Obama said: “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”

Tyson starred in 2011 period drama The Help, alongside Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

She was inducted into the US TV Academy’s hall of fame last year.

Obit Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 1997 (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Tyson, whose memoir Just As I Am was released this week, spoke to the New York Times earlier this month and said she did not fear death.

She told the newspaper: “I’m not scared of death. I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about?

“It’s something a lot of people are scared of. They just think they know death because other people say it is something to be scared of, but they don’t know that it is a frightening thing.”

Following the news of her death, tributes were paid from across the entertainment industry.

Euphoria star Zendaya tweeted: “This one hurts, today we honour and celebrate the life of one of the greatest to ever do it. Thank you Cicely Tyson. Rest in great power.”

Sex And The City actress Cynthia Nixon said: “America has had a lot of great actresses, but none greater than Cicely Tyson. Rest in Power.”

Robin Thede, the comedian and actress, described Tyson’s death as a “massive loss”.

She said: “Cicely Tyson is one of those legends you’d hoped we would have forever. And you knew it was a silly dream but you dreamt it anyway. This day is hard for so many reasons. This is a massive loss. Thank you for your gifts, queen.”

In a statement the Academy, the body which oversees the Oscars, said: “Early in her career, Cicely Tyson promised herself that she would only portray strong women. Harriet Tubman. Coretta Scott King. Miss Jane Pittman, and so many others. An Honorary Oscar winner in 2019 for her extraordinary body of work, she led by example and will be missed.”

TV scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson revealed Tyson’s mother was friends with his grandmother in the West Indies.

He added: “Farewell to a force of nature unto herself — in person, on stage, and on the screen.”