Cicely Tyson, a trailblazing Hollywood icon and veteran actor of the screen and stage, has passed away at age 96.
Her manager, Larry Thompson, confirmed the news. “I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” he said in a statement, Variety reports. “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.”
Born in New York in 1924, Tyson made her film debut with a minor appearance in Twelve Angry Men in 1957, but marked her first official movie role with Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959, per Variety. She achieved acclaim years later with the 1972 drama, Sounder, where she famously played Rebecca Morgan—a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.
She garnered further acclaim for playing the starring role in the 1974 TV film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Binta in the 1977 miniseries Roots. More recently, she played Ophelia Harkness, mother to Viola Davis's Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.
The pioneering actress is known for eschewing roles that promoted racist, demeaning, or over-sexualized stereotypes, challenging how Hollywood would portray Black women onscreen.
"I have to tell you, there was so much going on at that time that was projecting negative images of Black women that my mission was to change that," she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. "I said, 'Yes, we have drug addicts, and prostitutes and low-lifes, but we also have doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and we have women who are just mothers to their children and wives to their husbands that have decency about who they are and what they are and why they are on the face of this earth.' And so I didn’t feel that I could afford the luxury of doing anything else."
Tyson was well-decorated with accolades, with Screen Actor's Guild, Tony, and Emmy Awards all under her belt. Just in 2019, she received the Honorary Academy Award, the first Oscar of her six-decade-long career. She became the first Black woman to ever win an honorary Oscar.
Her latest project was her memoir, Just as I Am, which was published two days before her death on January 26. In the 400-page tome, Tyson reflects on her rich career and life's journey, from her childhood in New York to her memorable roles.
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Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she's listening to Lorde right now.
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