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Cicely Tyson: About

Cicely Tyson


Who was Cicely Tyson?

Born on Dec. 19, 1924, 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 heroes 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).  Continue reading from TMC

From our Collection

Link to Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson in the catalog
Link to The Help (film) in the catalog
Link to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (film) in the catalog
Link to Fried Green Tomatoes (film) in the catalog
Link to Lesson Before Dying (film) in the catalog
Link to The Rosa Parks Story (film) in the catalog

Link to Revolutionary Biographies Resource Guide Series