Cicely Tyson turned 93 in December and though she has a long and heralded career, she has one response for anyone who would ask if she’s thought about retiring.
“And do what?” the legendary actress asks, followed by a long, joyous laugh.
Truly, Tyson is busier and better than ever; in recent years she’s landed Emmy noms for her work on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” (she’s already won three statues), a SAG Award for her work in “The Help” ensemble, and in 2013 won her first Tony Award for her star turn in “The Trip to Bountiful.” There was also the Presidential Medal of Freedom honor in 2016, when President Obama listed her many achievements and couldn’t help but add, “And she’s just gorgeous!” Tyson again lets loose that wonderful laugh when reminded about this, admitting, “I was so embarrassed, I was red as a beet!”
The trailblazer can add a new honor to that growing list: on April 27, she’ll place her hands and feet in cement outside the TCL Chinese Theatre alongside other legendary stars. Turner Classic Movies is hosting the event as part of the ninth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, at which her 1972 film “Sounder” will screen with Tyson in attendance.
“It came as such a shock to me,” Tyson says of the announcement. “I never expected it.” Recalling her arrival in Los Angeles early in her career and walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard, she says: “I would look at the names of all the people who put their handprints there; it never occurred to me under any circumstances that I would be asked to do the same thing. It’s a very, very great honor for me.”
But don’t expect her to sit through “Sounder,” the movie that landed her an Oscar nomination for lead actress; she admits she’s never been able to watch herself on screen. The closest she’s come recently was at a revival screening of the Emmy-winning “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” where producers caught her trying to sneak out. She later retreated to the projection booth and viewed the rest from there. Tyson says she prefers to observe other actors. “I watch everything,” she declares. “I learn from everything: the good, the bad, the indifferent.”
Tyson began earning raves almost from the start of her career. One of her very first plays was Jean Genet’s 1961 “The Blacks: A Clown Show,” in which she starred alongside the likes of Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. It was an instant smash, and when she left to do “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,” she won a Drama Desk Award in 1962. “It was the first time I received an honor and I said, ‘I can’t accept this, I haven’t done anything yet! Wait until I do something and then I can accept it graciously,’” she recalls. “Well, they did not agree with me, so I have it.”
Cut to over 40 years later, and Tyson did indeed graciously accept her Tony Award for “Trip to Bountiful,” a performance that would also earn her SAG and Emmy nominations for the TV adaptation. Tyson still seems surprised by the success. “It had been 30 years since I’d been on the stage,” she says. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know upstage from downstage.”
Asked if she has a favorite medium between the stage and screens large or small, and Tyson says, “It’s the role that determines where I do. I would have done ‘Jane Pittman’ in a basement. I would never turn down a role like that.”
And on choosing roles, Tyson says that she always has a visceral reaction. “When I read a script, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns,” she notes. “If my skin tingles, I know it’s something I must do. If my stomach churns, I can’t touch it. It’s that simple to me.”
As for looking ahead, Tyson says simply: “I don’t think too much about what I’m doing next. I spend my time focusing on who I want to be next.”
What: Imprint Ceremony
When: 11 a.m. April 27
Where: TCL Chinese Theatre, 6925 Hollywood Blvd.