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Cicely Tyson, pioneering Emmy and Tony award winner, dead at 96

Cicely Tyson gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles.
Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

NEW YORK — Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday at age 96.

Tyson's death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.

A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Tyson's memoir, “Just As I Am,” was published this week.

Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Cicely Tyson attends the 25th Television Academy Hall of Fame on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

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“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.

Besides her Oscar nomination, she won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A new generation of moviegoers saw her in the 2011 hit “The Help.” In 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar statuette at the annual Governors Awards. “This is a culmination of all those years of haves and have nots,” Tyson said.

She was one of the recipients for the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. At that ceremony, President Barack Obama said: “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”

“Sounder,” based on the William H. Hunter novel, was the film that confirmed her stardom in 1972. Tyson was cast as the Depression-era loving wife of a sharecropper (Paul Winfield) who is confined in jail for stealing a piece of meat for his family. She is forced to care for their children and attend to the crops.

The New York Times reviewer wrote: “She passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women.” Tyson went on to earn an Academy Award nomination as best actress of 1972.

In an interview on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, she recalled that she had been asked to test for a smaller role in the film and said she wanted to play the mother, Rebecca. She was told, “You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too sexy, you’re too this, you’re too that, and I said, `I am an actress.'”

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In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won the Tony for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” It was the actress’ first time back on Broadway in three decades and she refused to turn meekly away when the teleprompter told to finish her acceptance speech.

"'Please wrap it up,' it says. Well, that’s exactly what you did with me: You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years,” she told the crowd.

She told The AP afterward she had prepared no speech — “I think it’s presumptuous” — and that “I burned up half my time wondering what I was going to say.” She reprised her role in a Lifetime Television movie, which was screened at the White House.

In the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Tyson is seen aging from a young woman in slavery to a 110-year-old who campaigned for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the touching climax, she laboriously walks up to a “whites only” water fountain and takes a drink as white officers look on.

“It’s important that they see and hear history from Miss Jane’s point of view,” Tyson told The New York Times. “And I think they will be more ready to accept it from her than from someone younger”

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael offered her praise: “She’s an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we’ve got.”

At the Emmy Awards, “Pittman” won multiple awards, including two honors for Tyson, best lead actress in a drama and best actress in a special.

“People ask me what I prefer doing — film, stage, television? I say, ‘I would have done “Jane Pittman” is the basement or in a storefront.’ It’s the role that determines where I go,” she told the AP.