Cicely Tyson, the actor and Civil Rights icon who began performing Off-Broadway in the 1950s, enjoyed a distinguished career in TV and film, and returned in triumph to win a Tony Award at age 88 for The Trip to Bountiful, died January 28 at 96. Her death was confirmed by her manager, Larry Thompson.
Ms. Tyson, who earned nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance in the 1972 film Sounder, also captured an Emmy Award and wide acclaim for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, showcasing her remarkable ability to project the indomitable inner strength of beset characters. She was a co-founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977.
Ms. Tyson was born in New York City December 19, 1924. She grew up in Harlem and began working as a typist, a career she abandoned in favor of modeling and acting after she was discovered and featured by Ebony magazine.
She enjoyed early stage success Off-Broadway in the long-running production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. She won her first award for acting in 1962: a Drama Desk Award for her Off-Broadway performance in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.
She made her Broadway debut in 1959, understudying Eartha Kitt in the title role of Jolly’s Progress, opposite Vinnette Carroll and Ellis Rabb. The play lasted just a week, but two months later she was back on Broadway in a role of her own in The Cool World, which lasted two performances, despite the presence of co-star James Earl Jones. The two would cross paths again.
Ms. Tyson returned to Broadway several times in the 1960s, but always in plays with brief runs, such as Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright; A Hand Is on the Gate; and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. After an abbreviated tenure in the gospel musical Trumpets of the Lord in April 1969, Ms. Tyson focused on her film and television career, where she enjoyed landmark success.
Though she appeared in films as early as 1956 in Carib Gold, and TV in 1951 in Frontiers of Faith, she achieved stardom in early 1970s Hollywood at the peak of the Black Power movement. She made her breakout appearance in the 1972 movie Sounder, playing the matriarch of a close-knight family of Black sharecroppers fighting institutionalized racism in the South during the Great Depression. The role earned her an Oscar nomination.
On television, she had a second triumph playing the title character in 1974's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, tracing the life of a Black woman from childhood in the time of slavery, to advanced age at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Ms. Tyson was called upon to age from her 20s to her 90s. Her performance won two 1974 Primetime Emmy Awards: as Best Lead Actress in a Drama, and also a special Emmy as Actress of the Year. Her choice of roles that powerfully asserted Black identity and dramatized oppression made her an icon of the 1970s Civil Rights movement.
Ms. Tyson returned to Broadway in August 1983 in a stage adaptation of the 1945 Bette Davis film The Corn Is Green, about a teacher who comes to a deeply impoverished community. Getting mixed reviews, the show ran less than a month, and she left Broadway behind for another three decades.
Her many TV and film appearances included Roots, King (in which she played Coretta Scott King), The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All (earning another Emmy Award), Fried Green Tomatoes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and more recently, How to Get Away With Murder, earning Emmy nominations five times for her performance as Ophelia Harkness (mother to Annalise, played by Viola Davis).
During the 1980s, Ms. Tyson was married to jazz musician Miles Davis. The marriage ended in divorce in 1988; they had no children.
Ms. Tyson’s Broadway return came about because she had seen and been intrigued by a production of Horton Foote’s drama, The Trip to Bountiful, about an old woman who journeys to take one last look at her childhood home. The play originated in a 1953 Broadway production that ran only 39 performances despite having Lillian Gish in the main role. The play was not translated to film until 1985, but actor Geraldine Page made such a strong impression in the role that she won a 1986 Oscar as Best Actress.
Though Ms. Tyson was in her late 80s in 2013, she was approached to star in a Broadway production featuring a predominantly Black cast, in which she shared the stage with Condola Rashad, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The production showcased her undimmed indomitability as a senior on a final quest—which seemed to reflect Tyson’s own real-life mission in the production.
Melissa Rose Bernardo wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “Tyson gives an awe-inspiring performance. She sings, she dances, she does everything but cartwheels.”
The Trip to Bountiful earned Ms. Tyson her longest Broadway run—187 performances—and the 2013 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play. At 88, she was the oldest performer to earn that accolade. In a moving acceptance speech, she told the Tony audience, “I’m the sole surviving member of my immediate family. I've asked over and over again why. I now know why.”
She explained, “I had a burning desire to do more great roles. I didn't want to be greedy. Just one more.”
When urged to conclude her extended speech, she replied, “Please wrap it up … which is exactly what you did to me. You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years, and now I can go home with a Tony.”
The production was filmed for broadcast on PBS. She also won a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for the role.
Her Tony speech notwithstanding, Ms. Tyson returned to Broadway one last time in 2015’s The Gin Game, co-starring as Fonsia Dorsey, resident of a home for the elderly, who tries to build a relationship with a cantankerous man (James Earl Jones), with whom she shares an interest in card games (which she always seems to win).
Ms. Tyson received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015. The following year she was invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 2019 she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre.