From her first significant role as Jane Foster in the TV drama “East Side/West Side” to her recurring role as Ophelia Harkness in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Cicely Tyson’s nuanced portrayals of proud Black women were a powerful counterbalance to the more prevalent negative stereotypes presented in film and on television.
The legendary film, television and stage actress who earned an Academy Honorary Award, three Emmys and a Tony died Thursday at the age of 96.
“Often at great personal cost, she demanded truth and dignity in the roles she accepted. Few actors have done more to advance the cause of racial justice than the incomparable Cicely Tyson,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said late Thursday.
“The National Urban League was proud to present her with one of our highest honors, the Arts Award, at our 2013 Conference. The entire Urban League Movement mourns her passing and honors her memory.”
A cause of death was not immediately released.
“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon,” her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement. “At this time, please allow the family their privacy.”
Born in New York on December 19, 1924, Tyson grew up in Harlem’s famed but hardscrabble streets.
As a teenager, she worked as a typist but decided she wanted to go into show business.
She began modeling at the age of 18 but her love of the stage quickly took over.
In 1963, Tyson made history with “East Side/West Side,”becoming the first Black lead in a television drama series.
Her star power soared after an Academy Award-nominated performance for the 1972 film, “Sounder.”
She had previously appeared in an episode of the popular TV western “Gunsmoke,” also making a name for herself in “The FBI,” “A Man Called Adam” and “I-Spy” which featured Bill Cosby.
The multi-talented Tyson would earn Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s mother in Alex Haley’s “Roots” and as the lead character in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
In 1994, Tyson earned her third Emmy in a supporting role as housemaid Castalia in the CBS miniseries “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”
Among her more memorable stage performances were 1968’s “Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights,” 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and 1983’s “The Corn is Green.”
“So many great stories about Cicely Tyson,” tweeted Soledad O’Brien. “Whew, that lady was amazing. While shooting a doc on her in Spanish Harlem, people kept stopping their cars. In the street. To hop out and say hi. Old people. Teenagers. Middle-aged fans. “Ciss-el-lee” they’d chant as she’d walk by.”
The Hollywood Reporter received statements from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Viola Davis, who worked with Tyson on “How to Get Away With Murder” and wrote the foreword of Tyson’s memoir, wrote:
“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. You gave me permission to dream . . . because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself. I’m not ready for you to be my angel yet. But . . . I also understand that it’s only when the last person who has a memory of you dies that you’ll truly be dead.
“In that case, you will be immortal. Thank you for shifting my life. Thank you for the long talks. Thank you for loving me. Rest well.”
In a tribute, Tyler Perry emotionally shared that the news “brought me to my knees,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“She was the grandmother I never had and the wisdom tree that I could always sit under to fill my cup. My heart breaks in one beat, while celebrating her life in the next,” he wrote.
“She called me son. Well, today your son grieves your loss and will miss our long talks, your laughter from your belly and your very presence.”
Whoopi Goldberg also paid tribute by describing Tyson as “a tower of power, a pillar of strength, CLEAR about who she was and how she was to be treated.”
LeVar Burton paid tribute to his “first screen Mom.”
“Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace. She was as regal as they come. An artist of the highest order, I will love her forever,” he wrote.