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Governors Awards: Cicely Tyson Looks Back on a Groundbreaking Career

Cicely Tyson called her friend Arthur Mitchell soon after learning she’d be honored with an Oscar to celebrate her legendary acting career.

A trailblazer like her, the former ballet dancer accompanied her to the Oscars in 1973, when she was nominated for lead actress in “Sounder.” Tyson starred as the matriarch in a sharecropping family struggling to survive during the Great Depression and went on to star in “Roots,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Help” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

“The Oscars were held on his birthday and he escorted me,” recalls Tyson, 93, “still speechless” about the honorary award she will receive Nov. 18. “Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after I tried to explain to him that I have an Oscar now.”

Tyson, the first black woman to win an honorary Oscar, doesn’t know who will accompany her to the Governors Awards ceremony now.

“There is no way to replace him,” the Harlem native says of Mitchell, the first African-American dancer in the New York City Ballet. “We’d been friends for 50 years. I have not even thought about who’s going to escort me.”

A week after Mitchell’s death, Tyson found out actor Roger Robinson, the man who played her husband on “How to Get Away With Murder,” had died, too. This wasn’t long after Tyson orated “When Malindy Sings” by Paul Laurence Dunbar at music legend Aretha Franklin’s eight-hour funeral.

“I was going through some trauma for a while there,” she says. “Every single week, there was somebody passing away. It was difficult to take. I let out a scream that I didn’t know was in my being and I couldn’t stop. Tears were running down my face. It isn’t something you can control or should suppress.

“As my mother said, joy sometimes brings sorrow, sorrow brings joy. It’s the yin and the yang of life.”

Her mother, Fredricka Theodosia Tyson, worked as a domestic and her father, William Tyson, was a carpenter. Both hailed from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Tyson had an older brother and younger sister, but is the only surviving member of her immediate family. But Fredricka lives on in Tyson’s heart and she often quotes her mother’s words of wisdom, which help her stay upbeat when needed.

“I would sometimes hear my mother in another part of the house laughing,” Tyson says. “It would be just the two of us there and I would say, ‘Mama, what are you laughing about?’ And she would say, ‘I’m laughing at my own calamities.’ That’s what makes me laugh — my own calamities. Otherwise, I would burst.”

Tyson’s mindful approach to life shines through in her work, which has earned her three Emmys — including two for her title role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” She also has a SAG Award, a Tony and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“When you think about artistry and elegance in acting, Cicely Tyson is the first name that comes to mind,” says friend Whoopi Goldberg, an EGOT winner. “When you watch her work and you see her on stage or on screen, you always know it’s going to be a thoughtful performance. When I grow up, I might be lucky enough to touch the hem of her garment.”

Her award-winning role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” inspired a young Viola Davis to become an actor and seek out Tyson to play her mother on “How to Get Away With Murder” years later.

“When we were introducing Annalise’s mother, Viola was like, ‘I know the one dream person I would love to play her.’ And she ended up doing it,” says Peter Nowalk, the drama’s showrunner. “That just speaks to what a legend she is. She has inspired so many people.

“Ms. Tyson was getting nominated for an Oscar and winning Emmys when no other black women were. It was such a rare thing then. This Oscar is overdue. She deserves an Oscar, she deserves another Emmy, she deserves Grammys. She deserves it all.”

B Michael, Tyson’s personal designer and the man behind the unforgettable black hat she wore to Franklin’s funeral, is working on her Governors Awards ensemble. The two were together recently when he heard her laughing in the bathroom.

“He knocked on the door and he said, ‘What happened? I want to share it. What’s got you laughing so hard?’ I cracked the door and I looked at him and I said, ‘I am laughing at my own calamities.’ And I closed the door. Then I opened the door again and I said, ‘So, you find your own.’”

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