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Legendary US actress Cicely Tyson dies aged 96

Written by on 29/01/2021

Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black Hollywood actress known for portraying characters of strength, has died aged 96.

The film, television and stage actress, whose 60-year career earned her three Emmys and a Tony Award, died on Thursday, her manager Larry Thompson said in a statement. No cause of death was given.

“She had a heart unlike any other,” said former US president Barack Obama, in a tribute posted on social media.

He tweeted: “In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it.”

“She left a mark on the world that few will ever match,” he added.

A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when black women were finally starting to get starring roles.

She used her career to take on issues important to her, such as race and gender.

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Her most-lauded performances came in historical works such as the 1972 movie Sounder in which she played a Louisiana sharecropper’s wife. Her performance saw her receive her only Academy Award nomination, but she was given an honorary Oscar in November 2018.

Tyson went on to win two Emmy awards for the 1974 TV drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she played a Southern woman who was born into slavery and lives to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

She picked up another Emmy 20 years later for her performance in the TV miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

President Barack Obama greets the actress at a 2016 graduation event at Howard University in Washington DC
Image: Obama pictured with the actress in 2016. He said ‘she had a heart unlike any other’

Tyson’s career boomed even in her 80s, and in 2013 she won a Tony for a Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful, the story of a woman returning to her small hometown. It was her first time back on Broadway in three decades.

While presenting Tyson in 2016 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, Mr Obama, the then president, said she shaped the course of history.

In February 2019 at the age of 94, Tyson was on the cover of Time magazine’s The Art of Optimism edition and an interviewer asked if she had considered retiring. “And do what?” was her response.

Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am, was published this week.

Paying tribute to the award-winning star on Twitter, US talk show host Oprah Winfrey wrote: “She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people. The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised. Her life so fully lived is a testimony to greatness.”

Oprah Winfrey (R) presents the Distinguished Career Achievement award to actress Cicely Tyson at the 2006 Black Movie Awards in Los Angeles
Image: Winfrey (R) presenting the Distinguished Career Achievement award to Tyson at the 2006 Black Movie Awards in Los Angeles

Actress Viola Davis, who co-starred with Tyson in the TV legal drama How to Get Away with Murder between 2015 and 2020, said she was “devastated” by the news.

“You were everything to me!” she wrote on Instagram. “You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls.”

LeVar Burton, who starred alongside Tyson in 1977 TV miniseries Roots, praised his “first screen Mom”.

“Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace,” he wrote on Twitter. “She was as regal as they come.”

Thompson said he managed Tyson’s career for four decades 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,” he said. “Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

 Sky News

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