Cicely Tyson, the legendary actress known for her many film, stage and TV roles including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and for exemplifying what it means to be a strong Black lead, died at the age of 96 on Thursday. While she lived a long life, filled with a storied career unlike any other, her death was unexpected, especially given the fact that she was still working and had a visible presence in Hollywood thanks to the release of her memoir, Just As I Am, two days before her death.
Prior to that, Tyson last appeared in the Tyler Perry film A Fall From Grace, and was a regular on the OWN series Cherish the Day, both marking her final on-screen appearances. They followed her recent, award-winning streak as Viola Davis’ mother on the ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder, earning her five consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations.
In total, Tyson merited 16 Emmy nominations and three wins for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She also earned an Academy Award nomination — her only one — for her breakout film role in 1972’s Sounder and was eventually bestowed with an honorary Oscar in 2018. That came five years after winning a Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful in 2013, marking a resurgence in acclaim and celebration for the actress, nearly 60 years into her acting career.
Her other notable projects included the original Roots miniseries The Marva Collins Story, King, and A Woman Called Moses, which is still one of the very few on-screen portrayals of Harriet Tubman to this day.
While a formidable star on-screen, “It wasn’t money that I was interested in,” Tyson told ET while reflecting on her career at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. “I was interested in making an impact on the people of the world, about us as a race of people.”
And that she did, breaking down barriers for Black people in Hollywood “by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people,” the New York Times writes, adding: “She urged Black colleagues to do the same, and often went without work. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral, and insisted that African-Americans, even if poor or downtrodden, should be portrayed with dignity.”
In addition to being an actress, Tyson was always regarded as an activist, and was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for her contributions to the entertainment industry as well as her continued fight for civil rights. In another interview with ET, Tyson said, “I’m a fighter, I was born a fighter, I will die a fighter. And I will fight all obstacles and probably die trying. But it’s not going to stop me.”
While there’s been no shortage of tributes, stories and remembrances shared online, several of her peers, including 2020 Tony Award nominee Blair Underwood, esteemed choreographer Debbie Allen, CBS This Morning host Gayle King and others spoke with ET’s Kevin Frazier and Nischelle Turner about memories of working with her and her lasting legacy.