Cicely Tyson, Actress and Trailblazer, Dies at 96

Her work comprised several landmark features aimed at capturing the experience of Black people.
Cicely Tyson arrives at night two of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Sept. 15, 2019, in Los Angeles. Tyson, the pioneering Black actress who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” has died. She was 96. Tyson's death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Cicely Tyson
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Actress Cicely Tyson, star of “Sounder” and ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” has died at the age of 96. The news was broken by the Associated Press with no mention of cause of death.

Tyson’s career spanned seven decades starting in 1951. She gained widespread acclaim in 1972 when she played the role of Rebecca Morgan in the adaptation of “Sounder,” the story of Black sharecroppers, and a young boy’s relationship with his beloved dog. She would not only get an Oscar nomination for her performance, but a Golden Globe nod as well. She would later win two Emmys for playing the title role in 1974’s “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” The role saw her play the title character, who goes from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. In her career, Tyson would rack up a whopping 14 Emmy nominations.

Despite her age, Tyson refused to give up acting. She had a supporting role in Tate Taylor’s 2011 drama “The Help,” and most recently secured an Emmy nomination for her role as Ophelia Harkness in the ABC legal drama “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Tyson was born in Harlem on December 19, 1924. Her parents were immigrants from the West Indies. She started her career as a fashion model, discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine. She turned to acting in the 1950s and in 1963 she became the first Black woman to star in a television drama on the show “East Side/West Side.”

In June of last year, Tyson was honored with a Peabody Award for her 70 years of service to Hollywood. “Cicely Tyson’s uncompromising commitment to using her craft to address the big issues of her time — gender equality, racial and social justice, equity and inclusion — places her in rare company. And she did so when speaking up and speaking out invited stigma, isolation, and retribution,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, executive director of Peabody in a statement. “She was a seminal figure of her time, and ahead of her time.”

Her work comprised several landmark features aimed at talking about the experience of Black people, from Alex Haley’s “Roots” to playing Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries “King.” To many, she broke ground for what Black actresses could play and has been cited by her “How to Get Away With Murder” co-star Viola Davis, as well as actress Kerry Washington, as an inspiration for their career.

Tyson was married to famous jazz trumpeter Miles Davis from 1981 to 1988.

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