Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson


Birth Place
New York City, New York, USA
December 19, 1933
January 21, 2021


Throughout her five-plus decade career on stage and screen, Cicely Tyson was known for her dedication to truthfully exploring the broad spectrum of the African-American experience. Tyson was at the forefront of a shift away from one-dimensional, negative screen stereotypes of black women with her starring role in "Sounder" (1972), which was groundbreaking in its portrayal of the dignity,...

Family & Companions

Miles Davis
Musician. Married 1981; divorced 1988; died September 28, 1991; Tyson's second husband.


The year of Ms. Tyson's birth has been variously reported as 1925, 1933 and 1939.

"I don't see myself as having this vast body of work. When I was honored a couple of years ago, they ran clips from all the things I had been in, and I sat in the audience going, Who's that? When did I do that?" --Cicely Tyson in INTERVIEW, September 1997


Throughout her five-plus decade career on stage and screen, Cicely Tyson was known for her dedication to truthfully exploring the broad spectrum of the African-American experience. Tyson was at the forefront of a shift away from one-dimensional, negative screen stereotypes of black women with her starring role in "Sounder" (1972), which was groundbreaking in its portrayal of the dignity, strength and courage of a Depression-era African-American family. The acclaimed film and Tyson's Oscar-nominated leading role opened the doors for a whole new era of black storytelling, and Tyson came to represent this strong and wise image of African-American women with revered performances in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (CBS, 1973) and "Roots" (ABC, 1977). Television movies offered the most opportunities for this actress with a mission, and she went on to recreate renowned moments and figures in African-American heritage in "King" (1978), "A Woman Called Moses" (1978), and "Heat Wave" (1990), among others. Whether playing an educated professional, the backbone of a challenged family, or a woman moved by an extraordinary sense of purpose, Tyson continually raised the standards of African-American imagery on film.

Born on Dec. 19, 1933, Tyson was raised in Harlem, NY by working class parents who originally hailed from the West Indies. Her family was very active in the church, where Tyson sang in the choir and played piano. Because her mother did not allow Tyson or her brother and sister to go to the movies, she would also spend Saturday evenings at the church. She graduated from Charles Evans Hughes High School and went on to land a secretarial job with the Red Cross, until one day, as show business legend has it, Tyson stood up from her desk and shouted "I'm certain God didn't intend me to sit at a typewriter." After attending a modeling course, she quit her secretarial job and rose to become one of the top black models in the United States, appearing on the covers of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. A suggestion that Tyson parlay her striking looks into acting led to a few bit parts in movies in the late 1950s, but a more significant presence would soon be felt onstage.

Tyson gave an acclaimed performance in Jean Genet's "The Blacks," a sardonic, post-modern take on a minstrel show, as well as appeared in half a dozen other off-Broadway productions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1962, she earned a Vernon Rice Award (later known as Drama Desk Award) for her role in "Moon on a Rainbow Shawl," however, after two roles as a prostitute, she steadfastly refused to play characters that were demeaning to black women. The following year, Tyson returned to Broadway to play the daughter of a strict New Orleans matriarch in "Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright" before becoming one of the earliest black actors cast on a regular TV show with her role as the secretary of an inner city social worker (George C. Scott) on "East Side/West Side" (CBS, 1963-64).

During the 1960s, while Tyson was involved in a long term relationship with bebop jazz legend Miles Davis, she made several television guest appearances on shows like "I Spy" (NBC, 1965-68) and "Slattery's People" (CBS, 1964-65), and had a notable supporting film role in the adaptation of Carson McCullers' "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" (1968). Tyson spent most of the following year at the Cherry Lane Theater in "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," an adaptation of the works of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She continued to work steadily in an increasing number of primetime guest spots until 1972, when she starred in the groundbreaking film "Sounder" (1972), as a Depression-era wife and mother struggling to hold her sharecropper family together while her husband is in jail. Tyson anchored the film with her luminous, heart-breaking performance, earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her leading performance and wins from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics.

Meanwhile the movie theaters exploded with a new wave of black urban her s like "Shaft" (1971), but television proved to be an emerging frontier for a new era of realistic, character-based films about African-American life and heritage. Based on her success with "Sounder," Tyson became a go-to actress for such works, giving an Emmy-winning performance in the TV movie adaptation of Ernest Gaines' novel, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (CBS, 1973). Tyson starred as the title character, whose 110-year life span serves as a chronicle of over 100 years of struggle for African-Americans - from slavery to the Civil Rights movement. Tyson segued into contemporary times with a leading role as the wife of a housepainter and aspiring p t (James Earl Jones) in the little-seen "The River Niger" (1975), but was back in the critic's circle with her strong, courageous portrayal of the mother of Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking ABC miniseries, "Roots" (1977).

Tyson earned another Emmy nomination for "Roots" and enjoyed further opportunities to bring African-American history into millions of homes with a supporting role as the mother of Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph in "Wilma" (NBC, 1977), and an Emmy-nominated portrayal of Coretta Scott King in the NBC biography, "King" (1978). The same year, Tyson starred as Harriet Tubman, the former slave who shepherded escaped slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad in "A Woman Called Moses" (NBC, 1978). Re-teaming with her "Sounder" and "King" co-star Paul Winfield - with whom she had an on-off romance - Tyson and Winfield played the parents of a teenage drug addict in "A Hero Isn't Nothing But a Sandwich" (1978), based on the popular young adult novel.

In an unexpected shift to the action-disaster genre so big in the 1970s, Tyson appeared in the ensemble cast of "The Concorde Airport '79" (1979) before surprising again with her role as a teacher who helps an ex-con (Richard Pryor) stay on the straight-and-narrow in the comedy hit, "Busting' Loose" (1981). Tyson essayed another teacher in the "The Marva Collins Story" (CBS, 1981), earning an Emmy Award nomination and a win from the fledgling NAACP Image Awards for portraying the real-life heroic character of an inspiring inner-city teacher. That same year, Tyson reconciled with her former beau, the increasingly eccentric Miles Davis, and the pair was married, though their reunion lasted just seven years. Tyson returned to Broadway in 1983 in "The Corn is Green," and over the remainder of the decade starred or supported in half a dozen TV movies, notably "Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story" (CBS, 1986), a Washington-set biopic of a homeless rights advocate which earned Tyson an Image Award for Supporting Actress, and "The Women of Brewster Place" (ABC, 1989), a miniseries adaptation of the Gloria Naylor novel which was nominated for an Emmy and won an Image Award for Best Miniseries.

In 1990, Tyson won a Cable ACE Award for her portrayal of a mother caught up in the Watts riots in the TNT drama "Heat Wave" (1990), and the following year she had a supporting role as the cook at the Whistle Stop Café in the blockbuster chick flick, "Fried Green Tomat s" (1991). Tyson earned a pair of Emmy nominations in 1994; one for her regular primetime role as a crusading Southern lawyer in "Sweet Justice" (NBC, 1994-95), and a win for her starring performance in the TV movie "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" (CBS, 1994). A mainstay of made-for-TV film dramas throughout the 1990s, several award nominations were again forthcoming when Tyson was cast as an elderly widow struggling to hold on to her farm by turning it into a care center for Alzheimer's patients in "The Road to Galveston" (USA Network, 1996). She was nominated for an Image Award for playing the head of the Harlem numbers racket in the period gangster film, "Hoodlum" (1997), and won an Outstanding Lead Actress Image Award for the TV movie adaptation of Alex Haley's "Mama Flora's Family" (CBS, 1998).

HBO tapped the now legendary actress for "Always Outnumbered" (HBO, 1998), a modern urban fable about a tough ex-convict (Laurence Fishburne), and "A Lesson Before Dying" (HBO, 1999), an adaptation of Ernest Gaines' novel about a teacher (Don Cheadle) sent to help a falsely accused murder convict (Mekhi Phifer) die with dignity. Not surprisingly, that performance was recognized with Emmy and Image Award nominations. Tyson went on to star in "The Rosa Parks Story" (CBS, 2002), supporting as the strong-willed mother of the woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man sparked the most successful non-violent protest in American history. Tyson returned to feature films in 2005; first, in the sentimental children's flick "Because of Winn-Dixie" (2005), before earning raves (including an Image Award) for her supporting role in Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (2005). Perry's films proved an appropriate niche for the morals-minded actress, and she reprised her role in Perry's similarly successful "Madea's Family Reunion" (2006).

Following Tyson's supporting role in HBO's adventurous prohibition-set musical "Idlewild" (2006), the three-time Emmy winner earned her ninth nomination for "Relative Stranger" (Hallmark Channel, 2009), in which she portrayed the wise and humorous matriarch of a son (Eriq LaSalle) struggling to put his life back together after leaving his family for several years. Returning to the Perry fold with a part in "Why Did I Get Married Too?" (2010), Tyson continued to be remarkably active, with appearances in various major films, including the acclaimed period drama "The Help" (2011) and the thriller "Alex Cross" (2012), another Perry-related project. Verging on age 80, she won a Tony in 2013 for her emotive lead performance in the play "The Trip to Bountiful," for which she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie.



Cast (Feature Film)

Last Flag Fying (2017)
Showing Roots (2016)
The Trip to Bountiful (2014)
The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013)
Alex Cross (2012)
Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010)
Relative Stranger (2009)
Fat Rose and Squeaky (2008)
Idlewild (2006)
Madea's Family Reunion (2006)
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)
Because of Winn-Dixie (2005)
The Rosa Parks Story (2002)
Leona Mccauley
Jewel (2001)
A Lesson Before Dying (1999)
Always Outnumbered (1998)
The Price of Heaven (1997)
Vesta Lotte Battle
Ms. Scrooge (1997)
Ebenita Scrooge
Bridge of Time (1997)
Riot (1997)
Hoodlum (1997)
The Road to Galveston (1996)
House of Secrets (1993)
When No One Would Listen (1992)
Duplicates (1992)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Heat Wave Part 1 (1990)
Winner Takes All (1990)
Heat Wave Part 2 (1990)
Heat Wave (1990)
Intimate Encounters (1986)
Acceptable Risks (1986)
Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story (1986)
Playing With Fire (1985)
Carol Phillips
Benny's Place (1982)
The Marva Collins Story (1981)
Bustin' Loose (1981)
The Concorde--Airport '79 (1979)
A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich (1977)
The Wilma Rudolph Story (1977)
The Blue Bird (1976)
Just an Old Sweet Song (1976)
Priscilla Simmons
The River Niger (1975)
Free To Be...You And Me (1974)
The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Jane Pittman
Sounder (1972)
Rebecca [Morgan]
Marriage: Year One (1971)
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)
The Comedians (1967)
Marie Thérèse
A Man Called Adam (1966)
Claudia Ferguson
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
The Last Angry Man (1959)
Attacked woman
Carib Gold (1956)

Producer (Feature Film)

The Trip to Bountiful (2014)
Executive Producer

Cast (Special)

The Trumpet Awards (2002)
Intimate Portrait: Harriet Taubman (2000)
CBS: The First 50 Years (1998)
The Screen Actors Guild Awards (1997)
Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One (1997)
18th Annual Cable Ace Awards (1996)
Celebrate the Dream: 50 Years of Ebony (1996)
A Century of Women (1994)
The 44th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards (1992)
Celebrate the Soul of American Music (1991)
Clippers (1991)
Visions of Freedom: A Time Television Special (1990)
The 20th Annual NAACP Image Awards (1988)
Without Borders (1988)
The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts (1988)
The Blessings of Liberty (1987)
The 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards (1987)
We the People 200: The Constitutional Gala (1987)
An All-Star Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. (1986)
Liberty Weekend (1986)
The Screen Actors Guild 50th Anniversary Celebration (1984)
CBS: On the Air (1978)
Marlo Thomas and Friends in Free to Be... You and Me (1974)
Wednesday Night Out (1972)

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999)
Mama Flora's Family (1998)
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)
The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990)
The Women of Brewster Place (1989)
King (1978)
A Woman Called Moses (1978)
Roots (1977)

Life Events


Broadway debut, "Jolly's Progress"


Made film debut in "Odds Against Tomorrow"


Gained notice for her performance in off-Broadway production of Genet's "The Blacks"


TV debut as series regular, "East Side, West Side" (CBS)


Appeared on CBS daytime drama "The Guiding Light"


Featured in off-Broadway play "To Be Young Gifted and Black"


Delivered breakthrough film role in "Sounder"; earned Best Actress Oscar nomination


Played lead role in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (CBS)


Played Kunta Kinte's mother in ABC miniseries "Roots"


Portrayed Coretta Scott King in NBC miniseries "King"


Starred as Harriet Tubman in NBC miniseries "A Woman Called Moses"


Returned to the stage in production of "The Corn Is Green"


Landed featured role in ABC miniseries "The Women of Brewster Place"


Played pivotal role in "Fried Green Tomatoes"


Returned to series TV when she played Carrie Grace Battle on NBC courtroom drama "Sweet Justice"


Played lead in CBS movie "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All"


Co-starred in crime film "Hoodlum"


Headlined USA Network holiday movie "Ms. Scrooge"


Received star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame


Starred in "Alex Haley's Mama Flora's Family" (CBS)


Earned seventh Emmy nomination for role in acclaimed HBO drama "A Lesson Before Dying"


Cast as title character's mother in CBS biopic "The Rosa Parks Story"


Co-starred in Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman"


Featured in family drama "Because of Winn-Dixie"


Re-teamed with Perry for "Madea's Family Reunion"


Appeared in Hallmark Channel production "Relative Stranger"; earned Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Movie


Nominated for the 2009 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie


Once again worked with writer and director Perry in "Why Did I Get Married Too?"


Played Constantine Jefferson in feature adaptation of "The Help"


Featured in crime thriller "Alex Cross," based on the novel <i>Cross</i> by James Patterson and starring Tyler Perry


Cast in horror sequel "The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia"


Movie Clip

Last Angry Man, The (1959) -- (Movie Clip) We Want the Doctor! Godfrey Cambridge and Billy Dee Williams make their screen debuts together as they drop off a sick girl (Cicely Tyson!) at the door of Brooklyn Dr. Sam Abelman (Paul Muni) in director Daniel Mann's The Last Angry Man, 1959.
Sounder (1972) -- (Movie Clip) You Got You A Low Life Job Pieces of Cicely Tyson's Academy Award-nominated performance as Louisiana sharecroppers' wife Rebecca, attempting to visit her unjustly jailed husband, with the Sheriff (James Best) and a shopkeeper (Ted Airhart), in Martin Ritt's Sounder, 1972.
Sounder (1972) -- (Movie Clip) In These Hard Times Sharecropper Nathan (Paul Winfield) and wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) leading the family home, finding Sheriff Young (James Best) waiting to make a bogus arrest, in Martin Ritt's Sounder, 1972.
Sounder (1972) -- (Movie Clip) Open, Needed Time Opening with the original Lightnin’ Hopkins recording of the song on which Taj Mahal based his score, leading to his first original song, with Paul Winfield as Nathan and Kevin Hooks as David Lee, hunting a raccoon in the dark, on location in Louisiana, opening Martin Ritt's Sounder, 1972.
Sounder (1972) -- (Movie Clip) Baseball Is Your Game Soundtrack composer and performer Taj Mahal (as Ike) lays a decent tag on a base-runner from a pick-off throw by Paul Winfield (as Nathan Lee), Cicely Tyson (as Rebecca) and kids (Kevin Hooks, Eric Hooks) cheering the sharecroppers' team, in Depression-era Louisiana, early in Sounder, 1972.
Sounder (1972) -- (Movie Clip) It's Nathan! Famous scene, David Lee (Kevin Hooks) and Rebecca (Cicely Tyson) shocked to see Nathan (Paul Winfield) returning from jail, John G. Alonzo's photography, in Martin Ritt's Sounder, 1972.
Man Called Adam, A (1966) -- (Movie Clip) If You Had A Chick Or Something Troubled trumpeter Adam (Sammy Davis Jr.) at his New York pad after blowing off a Midwest gig, surprised to find Louis Armstrong and daughter Cicely Tyson waiting, forgetting he told pal Ossie Davis he could lend out the place, plus Lola Falana's first movie scene, early in A Man Called Adam, 1966.




William Tyson
Pushcart vendor. West Indian immigrant.
Theodosia Tyson
Housekeeper. West Indian immigrant.


Miles Davis
Musician. Married 1981; divorced 1988; died September 28, 1991; Tyson's second husband.



The year of Ms. Tyson's birth has been variously reported as 1925, 1933 and 1939.

"I don't see myself as having this vast body of work. When I was honored a couple of years ago, they ran clips from all the things I had been in, and I sat in the audience going, Who's that? When did I do that?" --Cicely Tyson in INTERVIEW, September 1997

Awarded honorary doctorates from Atlanta University, Loyola University and Lincoln University.

She has received a National Council of Negro Woman Award.