Film & Television

Cicely Tyson:
Tremendous Talent, Transcendent Spirit

“I think when you begin to think of yourself as having achieved something, then there’s nothing left for you to work towards. I want to believe that there is a mountain so high that I will spend my entire life striving to reach the top of it.”

That’s what actor Cicely Tyson said in her acceptance speech when she received an Honorary Academy Award in 2018. Her statement was elegant and particularly modest, given how many summits she had already reached in her seven-decade career. In addition to that Honorary Oscar, she received three Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Tony. But no laurels could quite do justice to this accomplished and inspirational woman’s life. 

Tyson was born to immigrant parents in 1924 East Harlem. She was an unlikely celebrity; in fact, doctors warned her family that she wouldn’t live long, due to a congenital heart murmur. She proved them overly cautious when she passed away last week at age 96.

“Age is just a number. Life and aging are the greatest gifts that we could possibly ever have.”

A middle child, Tyson grew up in a deeply religious household. Church was central to her family life and it was there that she first began performing, singing, and playing the piano and organ. When she decided to pursue a theatrical career — after being discovered by a fashion photographer from Ebony magazine — her mother forced her to move out and didn’t speak to her for two years. Fortunately, that changed after her mother saw her onstage in Dark of the Moon at the Harlem YMCA in 1958. In an interview for Elle by fellow actor Viola Davis in 2017, Tyson admitted just how important her mother’s approval really was.

“When I did Jane Pittman I was in California — she was still in New York — and I called her and said to her, ‘Well? You’ve got to give me something!’ She said, ‘I am so proud of you,’ and Viola, I have to tell you, if she had not been able to participate in the recognition and the acclaim that I have gotten over the years, I don’t think it would mean anything to me at all. She’s my source of energy, and I used that to prove her wrong.”

Her career moved forward quickly. In the early 60s, she was cast in The Blacks by Jean Genet, alongside James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, and Lou Gosset Jr. The play ran nearly 1,500 performances, breaking Off-Broadway records. Soon after, she became the first Black woman to have a regular role on a television series, East Side/West Side, in 1963. She continued to work throughout the 1960s in both films and television, but it was three iconic roles in the 1970s that truly established her legacy.

In 1972, she starred in Sounder, a critically acclaimed Depression story of a sharecropping family trying to survive when the father is unfairly imprisoned. It was in sharp contrast to the stereotypical  “blacksploitation” movies of the time. In fact, notoriously ill-tempered critic John Simon, wrote, “Sounder is a rare honest movie about people who work the soil under conditions of extreme rigor. Sounder is also a rare honest Hollywood movie about blacks, making it virtually unique.”  Sounder earned an Oscar nomination for Best Film; Tyson, her costar Paul Winfield, and screenwriter Lonne Elder III were nominated as well.

Two years later, Tyson won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress as well as a special Actress of the Year Emmy for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the tale of a former slave who lives to witness the birth of the Civil Rights Movement at age 110. This was followed by another Emmy nomination for her role as Binta in the 1977 miniseries Roots. All of these titles and Tyson’s extraordinary work in them were significant for changing Hollywood’s approach to narrating Black history. For many of the more than 30 million households that tuned in, Roots was the first unflinching portrayal of American slavery, evolving far beyond the stock characters familiar from Gone With the Wind and its ilk.

“Whatever good I have accomplished as an actress I believe came in direct proportion to my efforts to portray Black women who have made positive contributions to my heritage.”

As news of her passing spread last week, President Obama (who had awarded her our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1918) wrote, “At a time when parts for actors who looked like her weren’t easy to come by, she refused to take on roles that reduced Black women to their gender or their race. Sometimes, that meant she would go years without work. But she took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being — flawed but resilient; perfect not despite but because of their imperfections. Across all of her performances, in legendary productions ranging from Sounder to The Trip to Bountiful to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, she helped us see the dignity within all who made up our miraculous — and, yes, messy — American family.”

Indeed, Tyson was selective about the roles she chose. In the 80s, 90s, and early 00s, these included Marva in The Marva Collins Story (NAACP Image Award and another Emmy nomination), Muriel in Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story (NAACP Image Award), Sipsey in Fried Green Tomatoes, Mrs. Brown in The Women of Brewster Place, Castralia in The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All (an Emmy win for Supporting Actress), Tante Lou in A Lesson Before Dying, Gloria in Because of Winn-Dixie, and Constantine in The Help, for which she shared a Screen Actors Guild with the rest of the cast. These were prestige roles in important films, always a deliberate choice by Tyson in an industry that was and is quick to generalize, simplify, and typecast.

“I don’t condemn anyone for making their choices. If someone chooses those roles, fine. But not for me. When someone stops me and says, You’re the reason I became an actress, that lets me know I made the right decision.”

Inspiring people, young and old, was something Tyson took very much to heart. It’s also a common theme shared frequently in the last several days by those who knew her … including my sister. 

In the last two decades of her life, Tyson, a vegetarian, often frequented Candle 79, an organic vegan restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was there that my sister Francesca, an actor and singer by trade, a restaurant manager for practicality, came to know her. They grew quite friendly over time, bonding over green juice and the ultimate comfort food: mashed potatoes. “What I wouldn’t give for a plate of my mother’s mashed potatoes!” Tyson once told her, “That was her love.” When my sister decided to leave the restaurant and return to the theater full time, she made it a point to tell Tyson personally. “At last!” the older woman exclaimed. “I knew you were special!”

“The thing is,” my sister remembers, “She never made me feel anything but special all the years I knew her. And never once probed for my ‘story,’ the way most people do. She had the grace to allow people their dignity and acknowledge their worth regardless of who they were or what they did.”

In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won her first Tony Award for playing Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, and I was fortunate to see it when the play traveled to Boston. My sister and mother came up from New York, and we all had the privilege of visiting Ms. Tyson backstage after the show. Her character had been onstage virtually every minute of the play, and the part is demanding and deeply emotional. Yet she immediately assumed the role of gracious hostess, giving us playbills she’d autographed (and had her costars Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood sign too, even though they were surely in a hurry to return to their hotels). She was genuinely engaged with all of us, reconnecting with my sister and asking about her current work, and encouraging my then 15-year-old daughter — not just asking her to share her reactions to the play, but urging her to follow her dreams with courage and conviction. Despite every reason to be exhausted, this diminutive woman (she was older, more petite, and much frailer than she had appeared on stage) shone with pure pleasure and sincere human connection. 

There are people whom you meet who are simply more spiritually evolved than the rest of us. In my life, I’ve been in the presence of four of them: the Dalai Lama, Leah Chase, Mr. Rogers, and Cicely Tyson.

“If each person in this world will simply take a small piece of this huge thing, this amazing quilt, and work it regardless of the color of the yarn, we will have harmony on this planet.”

Rest in power, Ms. Tyson. You gave so much to so many. You will not be forgotten.

 

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