Cicely Tyson, an award-winning actress and trailblazer, has died at age 96. Best known for her role in the 1972 family drama Sounder, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, Tyson started her career as a model before gaining fame as an actress in the 1960s.
She went on to solidify her name as a Hollywood legend after earning three Emmy Awards, a SAG award, a Tony Award and an honorary Oscar.
In a statement to Variety, Larry Thompson, Tyson’s manager, shared, “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing. 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.”
Tyson was married twice and had one known child. She divorced her most recent husband, Miles Davis, in 1988.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Tyson Dedicated Her Memoir to Her Daughter
Little is known about Tyson’s personal life, and while some outlets have reported that she had no children, Tyson talks about a daughter, whom she calls “Joan,” in her memoir.
The book, titled Just As I Am, was published just two days before her death, on January 26, 2021.
In the memoir, Tyson delves into details about her daughter’s birth and childhood.
USA Today wrote, “Tyson said she and her daughter ‘continue to work on our relationship, as fragile as it is precious,’ and she dedicates the book to her: ‘the one who has paid the greatest price for this gift to all.’”
2. She Was 1of 3 Children
Growing up, Tyson shared in an interview with Elle magazine that she never wanted to be an actress.
She said, “I never thought of being an actress because as children there were three of us — I was the middle child — and we spent our time in church from Sunday morning to Saturday night. Any movies we saw were shown in our church on Thursday night, when they put up a bed sheet and got a projector. ”
She explained that she was a shy child; still, she and her brother and her sister performed at the church often. Tyson played the organ, piano and even sang.
She added, “The church was really where, subconsciously, I was sopping up all of this — whatever I use now — to perform.”
3. Her Mother Was Her Mentor
Tyson responded, “My mother, although she rejected that I was interested in acting. As a matter of fact, she asked me to move out of her house — I could not stay there and do that. I found a girlfriend who had a nine-to-five job: She worked at the telephone company, she wore the same size dress I wore, and she was willing to take me in. And that was it. My mom didn’t speak to me for about two years or so.”
Asked if her mother was ever proud of her, Tyson said, “Oh yeah, when she came to the opening of Sounder. And when I did Jane Pittman I was in California — she was still in New York — and I called her and said to her, ‘Well? You’ve got to give me something!’ She said, ‘I am so proud of you,’ and Viola, I have to tell you, if she had not been able to participate in the recognition and the acclaim that I have gotten over the years, I don’t think it would mean anything to me at all. She’s my source of energy, and I used that to prove her wrong.”
4. Her Relationship With Miles Davis Spanned Over 2 Decades
In her memoir, Tyson chronicles her childhood in New York and her career in the arts.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2013, the actress shared, “After witnessing certain things, after experiencing certain things in my career, I realized that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were certain issues I needed to address and I chose my career as my platform.”
She also discussed her relationship with jazz musician and trumpeter Miles Davis, which lasted over two decades. According to USA Today, the two connected in 1965 after meeting in Riverside Park. In the words of the outlet, however, “Davis’ struggles with addiction and infidelity ultimately drove them apart.” However, in 1981, the couple married at Bill Cosby’s house after reuniting in their 50s, USA Today reported.
In her memoir, Tyson discussed her years of marriage to Davis, and how, shortly after they wed, he fell into a hole of drugs and adultery that ultimately led to divorce seven years later.
In 2015, Tyson spoke to CBS’ Gayle King about her marriage to Davis. She said, “I will say this. I cherish every single moment that I had with him.”
5. She Is the Godmother of Denzel Washington’s Daughter & Lenny Kravitz
She earned her best actress Oscar nomination after playing Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder. The performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination and the Governors Award, as well. Upon receiving the accolade, Tyson shared, “I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this. This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-not.”
Tyson is credited with 95 acting roles on IMDb, most recently playing Viola Davis’ mother, Ophelia Harkness, on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, which earned her five Emmy nominations. She also acted in the 2011 film The Help, garnering a Black Film Critics Circle Award, a Hollywood Film Award, an NAACP Image Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Women Film Critics Circle Award and more for her role as Constantine Jefferson.
In 2016, Tyson took home the Presidential Medal of Freedom. While awarding Tyson the honor, President Barack Obama said, “In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”