NEW YORK (AP) – Cicely Tyson, the pioneering black actress who received an Academy Award nomination for her role as the stockbroker’s wife on “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at the age of 88 and touched on “The Autobiography of Miss.” Jane Pittman, ”died Thursday at the age of 96.
Tyson’s death was announced by her family through her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.
“It is with a heavy heart that the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announce their peaceful transition this afternoon. Please allow the family their privacy at this point, ”a statement from Thompson said.
As a one-time model, Tyson started her film career with small parts, but rose to fame in the early 1970s when black women finally started getting lead roles. Tyson refused to take parts just for the paycheck and was picky.
“I’m very picky because I’ve spent my entire career doing what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of guy who works for money. It has to have real substance for me to do it, ”she told The Associated Press in 2013.
Honors from Broadway and Hollywood poured in, including Broadway star Tracie Thomas, who thanked her for paving the way. “A queen and a trailblazer,” she wrote on Twitter. Former co-star Marlee Matlin wrote, “She was a consummate professional and of all classes.” Director Kenny Leon added, “God bless the tallest and tallest tree.”
In addition to her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for the role of the 110-year-old ex-slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”. She saw a new generation of moviegoers in 2011 in the hit “The Help”.
In 2018 she received an Oscar statuette at the annual Governors Awards. “I come from a low status. I grew up in an area that was then called slums, ”Tyson said at the time. “I still can’t imagine meeting presidents, kings and queens. How did i get here? I am amazed. “
Donald Bogle wrote in “Blacks in American Film and Television,” describing Tyson as “a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, gorgeous smooth skin, dark, piercing eyes, and a regal vibe that made her seem like a woman with convictions and commitment. (Audience) felt … their power and reach. “
“Sounder”, based on the novel by William H. Hunter, was the film that confirmed her fame in 1972. Tyson was cast as the Depression-era woman of a sharecropper (Paul Winfield) who is jailed for stealing a piece of meat for his family. She is forced to look after her children and take care of the harvest.
The New York Times reviewer wrote, “She passes all of its light beauty to finally give us a sense of the deep beauty of millions of black women.”
Her performance generated rave reviews, and Tyson won an Academy Award nomination for best actress in 1972.
In an interview on Turner Classic Movies’ cable channel, she recalled being asked to test a minor role in the film and said she wanted to play mother Rebecca. She was told, “You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too sexy, you’re too that, you’re that too, and I said,” I’m an actress. “
In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a play to revive Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. It was the first time the actress was back on Broadway in three decades, and she meekly refused to turn away when the teleprompter told her to end her acceptance speech.
“Please wrap it up,” they say. That’s exactly what you did to me: after 30 years, you took me in your arms, ”she told the crowd. She hadn’t prepared a speech (“I think it’s presumptuous,” she later told the AP. “I’ve burned half of my time wondering what I would say.”
She repeated her winning role in the play for a Lifetime Television movie that was shown at the White House. She returned to Broadway with James Earl Jones in 2015 to revive The Gin Game.
Her fame exceeded all media. Wendell Pierce took to Twitter to praise Tyson as an actor “who conquered the power and grace of black women in America,” and Gabrielle Union said, “We have a visionary, a leader, a lover, an author, an icon and lost one of the most. ” talented actresses the world has ever seen. “Neil deGrasse Tyson called her” a force of nature in her own right “and Shonda Rhimes said” her strength and grace will be with us forever. “
In the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Tyson is seen aging from a young woman in slavery to a 110-year-old who campaigned for the 1960s civil rights movement.
In the touching climax, she struggles to an “only white” water fountain and drinks something while white officers watch.
“It’s important that you see and hear the story from Miss Jane’s point of view,” Tyson told the New York Times. “And I think they’ll be more willing to accept it from her than from someone younger.”
The New York film critic Pauline Kael praised her: “She is an actress, in order and as tenacious and honest in her methods as any other we have.”
At the Emmy Awards, “Pittman” won several awards, including two awards for Tyson, Best Actress in a Drama and Best Actress in a Special.
“People ask me what I like to do most – film, stage, television? I say, “I would have made Jane Pittman in the basement or in a shop.” It’s the role that determines where I go, ”she told the AP.
Tyson made her film debut in the late 1950s with small roles in such films as “Odds Against Tomorrow”, “The Last Angry Man” and “The Comedians”. She played the romantic interest in Sammy Davis Jr.’s jazz musician in “A Man Called Adam”.
She was best known for a recurring role in the 1963 drama series East Side, West Side, in which George C. Scott appeared as a social worker. Tyson played his secretary, making her the first black woman to play an ongoing role in a dramatic television series.
She played a role in the 1968 drama “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, which one reviewer described as “the absolute embodiment of the slogan“ Black is beautiful ”.” In “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries became one of the beings the greatest events in TV history she played Binta, the mother of the protagonist Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton.
She also appeared on Broadway in the 1960s in “The Cool World,” “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright,” and other plays. She appeared off-Broadway with future stars such as Maya Angelou, Godfrey Cambridge and James Earl Jones in a 1961 production by French playwright Jean Genet “The Blacks”.
She won a Drama Desk Award in 1962 for a role on the off-Broadway “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl”.
After her successes as “Sounder” and “Miss Jane Pittman”, Tyson continued to search for TV roles with news, and she hit it with “Roots” and “King” (via Martin Luther King) and “The Rosa Parks Story”.
She complained to an interviewer: “We black actresses have played so many prostitutes, drug addicts and housemaids, always negatively. I won’t play this characterless role again, even if I starve again. “
She continued with such films as “The Blue Bird”, “Concorde – Airport ’79”, “Fried Green Tomatoes”, “The Grass Harp” and Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”.
She won an Emmy for Supporting Actress in 1994 for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”. She has been nominated for Emmys several times, including “Roots”, “King”, “The Marva Collins Story”, “Sweet Justice” and “A Lesson Before Dying”.
In recent years she has been part of a panel discussion for Cherish the Day, an eight episode OWN anthology series created and produced by Ava DuVernay. She played the mother of Viola Davis in the long-running “How to Get Away with Murder”.
Tyson’s parents moved from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to New York, where Cicely (her name was spelled early as Cecily and Sicely) was born in 1924, the youngest of three children. When her parents separated, the mother went on welfare. At 9, Cicely was selling shopping bags on the streets of East Harlem.
When she graduated from high school, she found work as a secretary with the Red Cross. Her flashy appearance prompted friends to advise her to start modeling, and that led to drama schools, theater, movies, and television.
“My mother told me I couldn’t live in her house anymore because I was determined to be an actress,” she told an interviewer in 1990. “I said ‘OK’ and moved out.”
Tyson was once married to jazz star Miles Davis. The wedding took place in 1981 at Bill Cosby’s home in Greenfield, Massachusetts, which was attended by well-known show business figures. They divorced in 1988.
Tyson was never hard to spot. She tried to say no when she wore an incredibly large hat to Aretha Franklin’s 2018 funeral, only to be overridden by her designer. The hat would go viral.
“In my career I never thought that a hat would show me off! And I didn’t want to wear it, ”Tyson said later. “I said, ‘I can’t wear this hat, I’m going to block the view of the people behind me, they won’t be able to see and they will call me all kinds of names.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Put your hat on.’ “
She stopped by and told the AP that she viewed the hat as a tribute to Franklin’s appearance at Obama’s inauguration.
The AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.