Legendary and influential actress Cecily Tyson has passed away at the age of 96. Tyson was an award-winning stage and screen actress, who broke barriers for Black actresses. In a career that spanned more than seven decades, she was notable for her portrayal of strong Black women in television, film and theater. She never took roles just for the paycheck and refused to play characters that were demeaning to Black women, such as drug addicts, prostitutes or house maids, instead taking on important roles such as former slaves, educators and civil rights activists.
A former fashion model, Tyson broke out into her film career with the 1959 Harry Belafonte film Odds Against Tomorrow, as well as 1966’s A Man Called Adam, 1967’s The Comedians and 1968’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She avoided blaxploitation movies that were popular in the late ’60s, instead waiting to return to film with the 1972 drama Sounder, which earner her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and later an Honorary Oscar in 2018. She also made waves on the small screen, becoming the first Black woman with a recurring role in a drama series for East Side/West Side, and later won two Emmys for her titular role in the 1974 television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she played a 110-year-old former slave looking back on her life. Tyson was nominated a total of 16 times over her television career, including for her supporting role in the 1984 miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and a five-time nomination for her guest role on the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder. After three decades, she returned to the stage for the 2013 Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful, an all-Black cast adaptation of the 1985 film. Her captivating performance earned her her first Tony award at age 88. However throughout her accomplished career, Tyson said that her most important accomplishment happened in 2016 when President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tyson’s memoir Just As I Am was released just days before her death.
Tyson’s passing Thursday afternoon was announced by her longtime manager Larry Thompson in a family statement (via Variety). A cause of death has not been given at this time. She was 96 years old. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” said Thompson in a statement. “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.”
Following the news of the legendary actress’s death, actors, politicians and other notable figures took to social media to honor Tyson’s legacy and share how she influenced their lives. Viola Davis, who played Tyson’s daughter on How to Get Away with Murder, posted a tribute to Tyson, writing “I’m devastated. My heart is just broken. I loved you so much!! You were everything to me! You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls.” Oprah Winfrey celebrated her friend by writing, “Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people.” Barack and Michelle Obama each remembered Tyson in length statements, calling her a “trailblazer.”
It’s difficult to capture everything that Tyson accomplished in her long and distinguished life and career. She paved the way for Black women in Hollywood from the beginning of her career, and kept to her vow to never retire from acting. Most of the words being used in tributes from actors, colleagues and fans include “trailblazer,” “pioneer” and “legend,” proving the impact Tyson had on people in her personal and professional life. Along with shedding light on important people in her acting career, Tyson was active in numerous charities and foundations. Tyson made history for portraying strong women and telling important stories throughout the decades, and she will forever be remembered as a beloved icon.