10 Iconic Performances By Cicely Tyson

The celebrated actress was known for her roles in ‘Sounder,’ ‘Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ and more.

Acclaimed actress in theatre, television and film, Cicely Tyson passed away Thursday evening at the age of 96. Her memoir “Just As I Am” was released on Tuesday.

Although she would make her mark in the world for her acting prowess, Tyson was first discovered by Ebony magazine as a model. Soon, she would embark upon an extraordinary acting career that embodied Black excellence.

Her manager Larry Thompson confirmed the actress’ passing to Variety on Thursday (January 28), but did not provide further details.

“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson said in a statement. “Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

The award winning thespian was born in 1924 to hard-working blue-collar parents in Harlem. "I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time," Tyson said in a VOA interview in 2018. "I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it."

Tyson made her film debut in 1957 with a minor role in Twelve Angry Men. Her formal introduction as an actress came in 1959, co-starring with Sidney Poitier in Odds Against Tomorrow. Her breakout role wouldn’t come until 1972 when she appeared in Sounder for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for her unforgettable performance. Tyson blazed a trail for Black women to follow in Hollywood as she conveyed the beauty and strength of Black womanhood.

Throughout her distinguished career that spanned nearly seventy years, Tyson would win three Emmys; two for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and one for The Oldest Living Confederate Widow (1994). In 2013, Tyson claimed a Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful and in 2018 the Academy bestowed upon her the Academy Honorary Award.

To celebrate her remarkable life and career, is looking back at 1o iconic performances By Cicely Tyson

  1. Sounder (1972)

    Based on an acclaimed award-winning children’s book, Sounder tells the story of a sharecropper family dealing with devastating effects of poverty, racism and hunger during the Great Depression. Tyson played Rebecca, a strong mother who is holding everything together. She would go on to win the National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics awards and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for a role that established her as a force to be reckoned with.

  2. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

    Based on the 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was released as a television film depicting the life of Miss a former slave. Telling a gripping life story that spans from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, Tyson captivated audiences. In a profoundly moving scene, Tyson movingly portrays Pittman at 110 years of age taking a drink at a water fountain that was formerly for whites only. For her performance, Tyson won her first Emmy for Best Actress In a Lead Drama.

  3. Roots (1977)

    Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga Of An American Family was a runaway success. It spent forty-six weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, including twenty-two weeks at number one. When the book was adapted into a television miniseries, it became a cultural phenomenon featuring the likes of LeVar Burton, John Amos, Ben Vereen, Roxie Roker, and of course, Cicely Tyson, who played Kunta Kinte’s mother. Roots remains one the most successful miniseries ever, winning 9 Primetime Emmys, a Golden Globe and Peabody Award.

  4. King (1978)

    In the first television film to portray the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (Paul Winfield), King was released in 1979 with Tyson playing Coretta Scott King. The film follows the rise of Martin Luther King Jr from Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama to becoming one of the leading freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement.

  5. Bustin’ Loose (1981)

    Starring alongside comedy superstar Richard Pryor, Cicely Tyson got to display her funny side in the hilarious film Bustin Loose’. Pryor, who wrote the film, plays an ex-con trying to adjust to life outside of prison and has to drive a beat-up bus full of kids to make good on his probation. Tyson plays a school teacher who enlists Pryor’s help to relocate some special needs children whose school has been shut down. Pryor and Tyson lead a group of children on a cross-country adventure from Philly to her family’s farm in rural Washington. The laughs keep coming in this underrated gem.

  6. The Marva Collins Story (1981)

    Marva Delores Collins was an African-American educator who founded the Westside Preparatory School, a private elementary school in the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois. When her life’s work was adapted in for a television film, Cicely Tyson brought her story to life for all to see. Tyson, along with Morgan Freeman who played her husband, gave a vivid portrayal of the challenges and triumphs of Collins who sought to make a difference in the lives of Black children.

  7. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)

    Based on the 1989 novel by Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was another display of Tyson bringing the history of African Americans to a national audience. Co-starring with Diane Lane, Donald Sutherland, Anne Bancroft, the series follows the life of Bancroft’s character, Lucy Honicut Marsden, the young bride of a Civil War veteran. Tyson played Castalia, a woman enslaved by the Marsden family. The miniseries was critically acclaimed winning several Emmy awards, including the Outstanding Supporting Actress going to Tyson. She also took home the NAACP award for Actress in a Drama Series and the SAG award for Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie. 

  8. Madea’s Family Reunion

    Madea’s Family Reunion was Tyler Perry’s second play that he adapted into a feature film. While Madea (played by Perry) was the headlining star of the film, it was Cicely Tyson’s riveting performance that stole every scene she was in. Her speech to her family about loving themselves, honoring the legacy of their ancestors, and taking the rightful place is one of the most memorable and inspiring moments in the movie.  

  9. The Help (2011)

    The Help tells the story of an aspiring author during the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s who writes a book detailing the perspectives of Black maids who are employed by white families in the South. Their account gives insight into the daily struggles and challenges that Black domestics endured on a daily basis against the backdrop of racism and sexism. Cicely Tyson gives a tour de force performance in her role as Constantine Jefferson.

  10. How to Get Away With Murder (2015-2020)

    The organic chemistry between Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson was undeniable in each of their scenes in the hit ABC series from Shonda Rhimes, How To Get Away With Murder. Tyson, in a recurring role, played Ophelia Harkness, the mother of Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). As always, Tyson was on her A-game in every episode she appeared in. For her performance, she received another Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2018.

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