America doesn’t have a system of knights or dames, as Britain, Australia and New Zealand do. If there were such a system, Cicely Tyson would have undoubtedly been honored. But Tyson, who died on Thursday, a month after her 96th birthday, didn’t need any government-sanctioned titles: Admirers such as Ava DuVernay, Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes call her Queen Cicely, which was much more appropriate for her.
Her 70-year career was filled with landmark works, including the film “Sounder” (1972) and TV’s “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974), “Roots” (1977), “A Woman Called Moses” (playing Harriet Tubman, 1978), and “The Trip to Bountiful” (2014), among many others. There was also her recurring role in “How to Get Away With Murder,” in which she was Emmy-nominated five times, most recently in 2020, for playing the mother of lead character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis).
In 2018, Whoopi Goldberg told Variety, “When you think about artistry and elegance in acting, Cicely Tyson is the first name that comes to mind. 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.”
Tyson was born Dec. 19, 1924, in Harlem to parents who had emigrated from the West Indies. She began modeling while still a teenager, and wanted to become an actress, despite her mother’s objections.
She told Variety in 2020, “My career was difficult from the beginning. My mother didn’t want me to be an actress. She said ‘I don’t want you to do THAT.’ I never did find out what ‘THAT’ was. She had such great hopes and dreams for me … There was an adjustment, and she eventually made peace with it. Time takes care of everything.”
Tyson appeared onstage starting in 1950. She found a manager, who began lining up roles for her, but she was adamant that she needed to take acting classes. “I have to learn from the ground up. I want to feel solid on my plot, and then I can move on; otherwise, I can’t,” she said. “My curiosity was such — and still is, I’m grateful to say — that when I become involved in something, I will not stop until I achieved what I think I need in order to survive.”
She studied acting with multiple teachers and began landing small roles in film and television. Her first mention in Variety was in 1959, as part of the cast of “Odds Against Tomorrow,” directed by Robert Wise and starring Harry Belafonte.
Her name began to appear more frequently, including in a May 10, 1961 review of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.” The play was making its N.Y. bow and featured a cast of mostly unknowns, including Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones and Tyson, among others.
Variety also also reviewed the 1962 play “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,” by Errol John, directed by George Roy Hill. The review described her as “perkily vixenish” in the role, in a production that also starred James Earl Jones and his father, Robert Earl Jones.
Tyson was the first Black woman to become a series regular in a TV drama with “East Side/West Side,” starring George C. Scott as a social worker, a highly admired but short-lived (25 episodes) series during the 1963-64 TV season.
Among her film appearances was “A Man Called Adam,” a drama starring Sammy Davis Jr. that was produced by James Waters and Ike Jones, with Variety reporting that Jones was the first Black person to receive a producer credit on a major studio U.S. film.
In 1972, Tyson worked hard to land the role of Rebecca in the Martin Ritt-directed “Sounder.” Reviewer A.D. Murphy enthused that the film was “outstanding” and added, “The performances of Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson, as the devoted though impoverished parents, are milestones in their own careers.”
It resulted in Tyson’s sole Oscar nomination, and it was the first time that three Black performers were nominated in the same year: Tyson, Winfield and Diana Ross for “Lady Sings the Blues,” though the Oscars went to Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret”) and Marlon Brando (“The Godfather”).
Two years later marked another career highlight, with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” In his enthusiastic review, Tony Scott said “The simple, honest, faithful, in the end even noble, Jane Pittman smacks of truth … Tyson catches the fierce tenacity of the woman.” Tyson won two Emmys for the telefilm, as lead in a drama and a special award as actress of the year.
She ruled the TV scene for the next few years, appearing in “Roots” (1977), as Coretta Scott King in the miniseries “King” (1978) and “A Woman Called Moses,” playing Harriet Tubman (also 1978), and in title role of “The Marva Collins Story” (1981). Tyson was aware of her impact and of the power of television. She never took roles that were demeaning or trivial, and she only appeared in projects that had high intentions.
She appeared in numerous diverse roles for the next few decades, including notable appearances in “The Women of Brewster Place” (1989), “Ms. Scrooge” (1997), “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005), “The Help” (2011) and the series “Cherish the Day” (2020).
Tyson married Miles Davis in 1981 after many years of an on-again/off-again romance; they divorced in 1989.
In all, Tyson earned 16 Emmy nominations (including three wins), 15 NAACP Image Awards (eight wins), a 2018 Honorary Oscar, and a Tony Award for the 2013 revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” a performance she re-created in the telefilm. She also won a Peabody for career achievement, the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors and 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
Despite her status and esteem, she loved to joke around, and especially loved to laugh at herself. In 2018, she told Variety that when she was young, she would sometimes hear her mother, alone in the other room, laughing. “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.”
When she received a Governors Academy Award in 2018, she held it up to her late mother. “Mom, I know you didn’t want me to do this, but I did and here it is.” After all those years, the pain of the conflict were still with her. That’s why she was a good actress: Everything emotion was right on the surface, available to tap into.
When meeting someone for the first time, she preferred to be called Miss Tyson. Americans, especially showbiz Americans, tend to immediately go for the first name. But if a person had any sense, they would have known how to address her, because she had a regal bearing and a stately manor that inspired respect. She was, for all the world, Queen Cicely.