Cicely Tyson

Active - 1959 - 2020  |   Born - Dec 19, 1924 in New York, New York, United States  |   Died - Jan 28, 2021   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

One of America's most respected dramatic actresses, Cicely Tyson has worked steadily as a television, film, and stage actress since making her stage debut in a Harlem YMCA production of Dark of the Moon in the 1950s. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Tyson was raised in Harlem. After working as a secretary and a successful model, she became an actress, landed her first jobs in off-Broadway productions, and eventually made it to the Great White Way in the late '50s.

Tyson got her first real break in 1963, playing a secretary to George C. Scott on the TV series East Side/West Side, and in 1966 signed on with the daytime soap The Guiding Light. That same year, she made her credited screen debut starring opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the drama A Man Called Adam (her first uncredited film role was in 1959's Odds Against Tomorrow). More film, television, and stage work followed, but Tyson did not truly become a star until her Oscar-nominated performance in the Depression drama Sounder (1972). An unusual beauty with delicate features, expressive black eyes, and a full, wide mouth, Tyson next hid her good looks beneath layers of old-age makeup to convincingly portray a 110-year-old former slave who tells her extraordinary life story in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). A well-wrought effort, it won Tyson her first Emmy for her title role, which required her to age 91 years on the screen.

Tyson subsequently had great success on television, particularly with her role in the legendary miniseries Roots (1977) and her work in The Women of Brewster Place (1989). She also continued to do a fair amount of film work, appearing in films like Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994), The Grass Harp (1995), and Hoodlum (1997). In 1997, Tyson again donned old woman's makeup to offer a delightfully crotchety version of Charles Dickens' Scrooge in the 1997 USA Network original production Ms. Scrooge. Two years later, she had another television success -- and another Emmy nomination -- with A Lesson Before Dying, a drama set in the 1940s about a black man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Tyson was later featured in a trio of popular Tyler Perry movies, including Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Madea's Family Reunion (2006) and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010). She also had a small, but pivotal, role in 2011's Oscar-nominated The Help, as Contstantine, the loving and elderly maid of Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone).

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  • Worked as a typist after high school.
  • Became one of the top U.S. black models in the late 1950s, appearing on the covers of such magazines as Harper's Bazaar and Vogue.  
  • Appeared as Jane Foster in the acclaimed East Side/West Side in 1963; it was the first drama series to feature a black woman in a recurring role. 
  • Refused to appear in blaxploitation films despite their popularity in the 1970s. 
  • Cofounder of the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.
  • Had an East Orange, N.J., performing and fine arts school named in her honor in 1995.
  • Was honored at Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball in 2005.
  • In 2009, she received an honorary degree from Morehouse College, an all-male college. 
  • Appeared in Willow Smith's video for the song "21st Century Girl" in 2011.
  • Is an activist for raising awareness to prevent strokes.