Cicely Tyson, the Emmy and Tony-winning actress known for her portrayals of strong, resilient Black women, has died at the age of 96. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the news was confirmed by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson, but a cause of death was not made known.
Tyson was born in December 1924 in Harlem, New York to Frederica Tyson and William Augustine Tyson, both immigrants from the West Indies. Although she first enjoyed a career as a successful fashion model after being being discovered by Ebony magazine, Tyson’s true calling was acting.
Her first acting gig came in 1951 with the NBC series Frontiers of Faith, but it wouldn’t be long before she broke ground in the TV industry. In 1963, she made history as the first Black actor to star in a TV drama (East Side/West Side on CBS).
That same decade, Tyson also appeared onstage as part of Jean Genet’s The Blacks; the longest running off-Broadway production during its day, it also starred Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. She also joined Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1966 film A Man Called Adam.
The 1970s saw Tyson catapulted into mainstream stardom. She received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her turn as Rebecca Morgan in the critically acclaimed 1972 drama Sounder. Two years later, Tyson’s powerful portrayal of a former slave in the TV film The Autobiography of Jane Pittman scored her a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress and Emmy for Actress of the Year.
For the next two decades, Emmy and NAACP nominations continued to pour in for her roles in Roots, The Marva Collins Story, and King. In the latter 1978 miniseries, Tyson played the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King.
Tyson was a living legend and Hollywood pioneer by the 1990s and 2000s, obtaining notable roles in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and The Help, and even narrating the award-winning documentary Up from the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream.
In 2013, Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful. For her role in the ABC thriller series How to Get Away with Murder, Tyson garnered another five Emmy nominations.
Her legendary career in front of the camera also earned her the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 and a spot in the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame. Before leaving the White House, President Barack Obama awarded Tyson with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2016. Tyson also became the first Black woman to be given an honorary Oscar.
On January 26th, two days prior to her death, Tyson released her memoir, Just As I Am.