Award-Winning Actress Cicely Tyson Dies at Age 96

January 28, 2021 Updated: January 29, 2021

NEW YORK—Cicely Tyson, the actress who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday at age 96.

Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.

A onetime model, she began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s.

“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.

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Cicely Tyson arrives at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 2009. (Matt Sayles/ AP Photo)

Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A new generation of moviegoers saw her in the 2011 hit “The Help.”

At the Emmy Awards, “Pittman” won multiple awards, including two honors for Tyson, best lead actress in a drama and best actress in a special.

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael offered her praise: “She’s an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we’ve got.”

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Cicely Tyson peers through a monocle at the Dorchester Hotel in London on Feb. 19, 1973. (AP Photo)

Tyson made her movie 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 to Sammy Davis Jr.‘s jazz musician in “A Man Called Adam.”

She gained wider notice with a recurring role in the 1963 drama series “East Side, West Side,” which starred George C. Scott as a social worker.

She played a role in the 1968 drama “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” that was hailed by a reviewer as “an absolute embodiment of the slogan ‘Black is beautiful.‘” In “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries that became one of the biggest events in TV history, she played Binta, 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. Off-Broadway, she appeared with such future stars as Maya Angelou, Godfrey Cambridge and James Earl Jones in a 1961 production of French playwright Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

She won a Drama Desk award in 1962 for a role in the off-Broadway “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.”

After her “Sounder” and “Miss Jane Pittman” successes, Tyson continued to seek TV roles that had messages, and she succeeded with “Roots” and “King” (about Martin Luther King) and “The Rosa Parks Story.”

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 a supporting actress Emmy in 1994 for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” She was nominated for Emmys several other times, including for “Roots,” “King,” “The Marva Collins Story” “Sweet Justice” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”

In recent years, she was part of a panel discussion for “Cherish the Day,” an eight-episode OWN anthology series created and produced by Ava DuVernay.

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Cicely Tyson poses with her award for best actress in a play for “The Trip to Bountiful,” in the press room at the 67th Annual Tony Awards in New York on June 9, 2013. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Tyson’s parents moved from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to New York, where Cicely (her name was spelled early on 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 sold shopping bags on the streets of East Harlem.

When she graduated from high school, she found work as a secretary at the Red Cross. Her striking looks prompted friends to advise her to take up modeling and that led to acting schools, theater, movies and television.

“My mother told me I could no longer live in her house because I was determined to be an actress,” she told an interviewer in 1990. “I said ‘OK,’ and I moved out.”

Tyson was married once, to jazz great Miles Davis. The wedding was held in 1981 at Bill Cosby’s house in Greenfield, Massachusetts, attended by show business notables. They divorced in 1988.

By Mark Kennedy