Cicely Tyson, the legendary Black actor who won a Tony, three Emmys and an honorary Academy Award over the course of a decades-long career, died Thursday afternoon. She was 96 years old.
Her manager, Larry Thompson, released a statement confirming her death, Variety reports.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” the statement read. “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.”
Tyson had recently released a memoir, Just As I Am, on Tuesday. In the memoir, the actor recounts legendary stories from her colorful life, including her complicated marriage to Miles Davis, her legal feud with Elizabeth Taylor, and how she navigated her decades-long career. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Tyson spoke candidly, musing about death and how she views it at her age.
“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?” she asked. “People say it is this and it is that. But they don’t know. They’ve not been there. I’ve not been there. I’m not in a hurry to go either! I take it a day at a time.”
Tyson was a pioneering figure in Hollywood, a Black woman who broke boundaries after landing leading roles on stage, in film, and in television. Born in East Harlem to a domestic worker mother and carpenter-painter father who immigrated to the U.S. from the West Indies, she began her career as a model. She switched over to acting in the 1960s, performing in a slew of plays like To Be Young, Gifted and Black and The Blacks, which also starred future icons Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. In the latter play, she tackled the role of a sex worker named Virtue. She played a sex worker again in the play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Though both performances earned her acclaim, Tyson began declining similar roles, concisely explaining her point of view in a 1972 interview: “I didn’t want to get typecast and because it was demeaning to Black women,” she said, outlining the kind of representation she wanted to champion for Black actors early on her career.
Her breakthrough to stardom arrived that same year, when she starred in the Great Depression-era drama Sounder as matriarch Rebecca Morgan, a role she modeled after her own mother, Frederica. The performance earned Tyson an Academy Award nomination for best actress, announcing her arrival in Hollywood. “That movie was, for me, the first acknowledgment that I could do something that would move people,” she said in a 2017 interview with Viola Davis.
Two years later, she starred in the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an expansive look at the life of a 110-year-old formerly enslaved woman, from her childhood up through the Civil Rights Movement. The stirring film, based on the novel of the same name, earned nine Emmys, including two for Tyson for actress of the year and best lead actress in a drama. “What [The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman] changed for me was that people were able to understand who we are, what we are, and why we were placed on this universe; that we were human beings just like any other person and should be treated the same,” she said in a recent interview of the film’s portrayal of African-Americans. “That’s all we wanted.”
Tyson earned more Emmy recognition over the years, including a nod in 1977 for her turn in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, and a win in 1994 for best supporting actress in the historical miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She also earned four nods from 2017 to 2020 in the outstanding guest actress category for her performance in How to Get Away with Murder, the ABC drama starring Viola Davis. In the juicy legal series, Tyson plays the mother of Davis’s complex character, Annalise Keating. “Those first scenes we filmed together were more poignant than I could have imagined,” Davis wrote in 2019.