After a photographer from Ebony magazine discovered her, Cicely Tyson’s first work in the public eye was as a fashion model. Born in Harlem, she studied at acting schools and New York University for a stint, but her first notable stage role came in 1959 in the revival of Vinnette Carroll’s musical revue, The Dark of the Moon.
She made her Broadway debut that same year, understudying Eartha Kitt in the title role of Jolly’s Progress. Soon after, she bowed in Broadway’s The Cool World by Warren Miller and Robert Rossen. At the same time, Hollywood came knocking, casting Tyson in movies such as Odds Against Tomorrow and Twelve Angry Men. But that didn’t stop her from working on the stage.
In 1961, she originated a role in the controversial Off-Broadway play, The Blacks by Jean Genet. Her castmates included James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques—and she earned a 1962 Vernon Rice Award (now known as a Drama Desk). She next stepped onstage in Broadway’s Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright in 1962.
The more Tyson worked, the higher she rocketed to fame for her talent. While guest starring on television and filming for the big screen for decades, Tyson always made time for theatre. After Tiger, Tiger she appeared in six more Broadway plays, including A Hand Is on the Gate (also with Jones), Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights (directed by Sidney Poitier), the musical Trumpets of the Lord, and The Corn Is Green.
After a 20-year hiatus, Tyson returned to Broadway in 2013 with The Trip to Bountiful. Earning a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award, her triumph as Mrs Carrie Watts came at the age of 89. Tyson starred opposite Cuba Gooding, Jr. in his Broadway debut, Vanessa Williams, and Condola Rashad in the Horton Foote classic as the woman who lives with a daughter-in-law who loathes her and a son who takes his wife’s side.
The actor was also nominated for two Emmy Awards (her 10th and 11th at the time) for the television movie of The Trip to Bountiful.
Finally, in 2015 Tyson returned to the stage opposite James Earl Jones in the revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Gin Game.
Gin Game, With James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, Opens on Broadway
Now, she has earned her 13th nomination as Ophelia Hartness in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. Playing a mother from the school of hard knocks to Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating (also nominated for an Emmy this year), Tyson racks up her second consecutive nomination for the guest role.
Tune in to the 69th Annual Emmy Awards September 17 on CBS.