The world has lost a true legend as Hollywood icon Cicely Tyson died at the age of 96. The pioneering African American 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” — was in the middle of promoting her new memoir, “Just As I Am,” when she quietly passed away.
In a career spanning more than seven decades, she became known for her portrayal of strong Black women. Having appeared in minor film and television roles early in her career, Tyson garnered widespread attention and critical acclaim for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in “Sounder” (1972); she was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Actress and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her work in the film. Tyson’s portrayal of the title role in the 1974 television film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” based on the book by Ernest J. Gaines, won her further praise; among other accolades, the role won her two Emmy Awards and a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Tyson continued to act in film and on television in the 21st century. In 2011, she played the role of Constantine Jefferson in the award-winning film “The Help.” She also played the recurring role of Ophelia Harkness in the legal drama TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” since the show’s inception in 2014, for which she was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series five times.
In addition to her screen career, Tyson appeared in various theater productions. She received a Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for her Off-Broadway performance in “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.” Tyson also starred as Carrie Watts in the Broadway play “The Trip to Bountiful,” winning the Tony Award, the Outer Critics Award, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013. Tyson was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. In November 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States. In 2020, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
Tyson had a daughter when she was 17 years old. Later in life, she fell in love with legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. They were married on November 26, 1981, in a ceremony conducted by Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at the home of actor Bill Cosby. Their marriage was tumultuous due to Davis’ volatile temper and infidelity. Davis credited Tyson with saving his life and helping him overcome his cocaine addiction. They resided in Malibu, California, and New York City, until she filed for divorce in 1988. Their divorce was finalized in 1989, two years before Davis died in 1991.
Tyson was godmother to the singer Lenny Kravitz, having been friends with his mother, actress Roxie Roker, as well as to Denzel Washington’s daughter Katia, and Tyler Perry’s son Aman.
Tyson’s memoir, “Just As I Am,” was published January 26, 2021, and she was promoting the book during her final weeks. In an interview with CBS This Morning, host Gayle King Tyson asked how she wanted to be remembered, to which Tyson replied, “I’ve done my best. That’s all.”
We salute her in all her greatness. RIP.