As a teenager, Cicely Tyson took up a typing job to make ends meet. However, destined for the world of glamour, she soon caught the eye of a photographer of ‘Ebony’ magazine who offered her a career in modelling. Grabbing the opportunity, she turned to professional modelling.
Tyson’s stunning looks and charismatic personality helped her quickly rise to the top of the modelling industry. Though Tyson was happy with how her career was shaping, her religious mother was displeased with her profession. When Tyson was offered her first acting job for a television series, this displeased her mother all the more who felt that Tyson was choosing a sinful path. Consequently, she kicked her out of home.
Cicely Tyson’s first acting project was a small role in a play in 1950. The following year, she grabbed a minor role in the NBC series, ‘Frontiers of Faith’. Tyson’s first film role came with the 1956 flick, ‘Carib Gold’.
In 1961, she appeared in the original cast of French playwright Jean Genet's ‘The Blacks’. The show was a major hit and went on to become the longest running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, running for 1,408 performances.
After a couple of guest appearances in television, she earned a major role in the celebrated television series, ‘East Side/West Side’ in 1963. She featured in 26 episodes of the much loved and admired television series.
Following ‘East Side/West Side’, Tyson starred in a single episode of ‘Slattery’s People’ and ‘I Spy’ before bagging yet another prominent role in the soap opera ‘Guiding Light’.
Alongside television and theater, Tyson’s film career too progressed steadily. She took up small roles in films such as ‘Odds against Tomorrow’, ‘The Last Angry Man’, ‘A Man Called Adam’ and ‘The Comedians’.
In 1968, she bagged a featured role in the film, ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ where she played the character of Portia. The film was a major hit both commercially and critically, winning two Academy Award nominations and four Golden Globe nominations.
Cicely Tyson went on to do more television work, taking up guest roles in various television series including, ‘Cowboy in Africa’, ‘The F.B.I.’, ‘Medical Center’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Mission: Impossible’, and ‘Emergency!’
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Though she did a lot of work in television, films and theater, the big breakthrough of her career came only in 1972 when she capped the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film, ‘Sounder’. A film adaptation of an award-winning novel of the same name, ‘Sounder’ received massive acclaim and appreciation. Her brilliant acting and outstanding performance helped her bag a nomination for the prestigious Academy Award for Best Actress.
Taking her success story forward, she gave yet another spellbinding performance as the titular character of Jane Pittman for the television series ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’. The series was highly appreciated and won her two Primetime Emmy Awards and a nomination at the BAFTA.
Tyson’s stint with successful television shows continued as she starred in the much acclaimed and highly appreciated television shows, ‘Roots,’ ‘King’ and ‘The Marva Collins Story’, each of which earned her a nomination at the Emmy Awards for various categories.
Throughout the decade of 1980s and 1990s, Tyson juggled between films and television. She did a couple of films such as ‘Bustin’ Loose’, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ and ‘Hoodlum’ and several television shows including ‘Acceptable Risks’, ‘Benny’s Place’, ‘Heat Wave’, and ‘House of Secrets.’
In 1994, she played the role of Castralia, a house maid in the television series ‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All’, for which she received her third Emmy Award. She followed it up with the portrayal of the character of civil rights activist and attorney Carrie Grace Battle in ‘Sweet Justice’. The series earned her yet another Emmy nomination.
In 2005, Cicely Tyson co-starred in two films ‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ and ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman’, the latter being a hit. She followed it up with a couple of more film roles and documentaries. During this time, her best performance on television came for the show, ‘Relative Stranger’ which earned her an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the character of Pearl.
In 2011, Tyson was a part of the ensemble cast for the American period film, ‘The Help’. In it, she donned the role of Constantine Bates. The film was hugely successful as it opened to positive reviews and amassed more than $216 million at the box office.
Ending her 30-year hiatus from Broadway, Cicely Tyson returned to play the character of Mrs. Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful’ in 2013. The play was highly appreciated. It also earned her, her first Tony Award for Best Actress in Leading Role. She reprised her role for the television version of the play as well.
Currently, she plays the character of Ophelia Harkness in ‘How to Get Away with Murder’. In 2016, she did a guest role as Doris Jones in ‘House of Cards.’
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Awards & Achievements
In 1972, Cicely Tyson won the NSFC Best Actress and NBR Best Actress award for her role as Rebecca Morgan in the highly-acclaimed film, ‘Sounder’.
In 1974, Tyson won two Emmy Awards for her excellent performance in ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’. The third one came in for ‘Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All’ in 1994.
She won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini Series or Dramatic Special four times: ‘Samaritan’, ‘The Road to Galveston’, ‘Mama Flora’s Family’ and ‘The Trip to Bountiful’
In 1982, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award.
In 1988, Tyson received Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
Tyson is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
In May 2009, she received an honorary degree from Morehouse College, an all-male college. Later on, she received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Columbia and Howard University as well.
In 2010, she was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal.
On November 22, 2016, Tyson was felicitated with the highest civilian honor of the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the then-President Barack Obama.
She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has also been honored by the Congress of Racial Equality and by the National Council of Negro Women.