Cicely Tyson Biography

(Actress and Model Best Known for Her Films: 'Sounder' and ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’)

Birthday: December 18, 1924 (Sagittarius)

Born In: New York City, New York, United States

Cicely Tyson was a celebrated American actress and model, best known for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder. Despite coming from a society that ridiculed black women as ‘worthless,’ Tyson not just proved herself but also raised the bar. Unlike other actresses who accepted whatever roles came their way, Tyson was extremely choosy about her work. More than often, she flatly refused to do films, or take parts solely for the pay check. She was extremely selective about the roles she chose as she wanted to perform only those characters that had depth and meaning. As such, Tyson’s career trajectory wasn’t always a smooth one. She often struggled to find meaningful work. Tyson’s career was adorned with a string of successful acting projects, including The Help, The Trip to Bountiful, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Sounder, and Roots. Tyson received four Black Reel Awards, three Primetime Emmy Awards, one Tony Award, one Screen Actors Guild Award, a Peabody Award, and an honorary Academy Award.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Cicely Louise Tyson

Died At Age: 96


Spouse/Ex-: Miles Davis (m. 1981–88)

siblings: Issac Tyson, Sandra Tyson

Born Country: United States

Actresses Black Actresses

Height: 5'3" (160 cm), 5'3" Females

Died on: January 28, 2021

place of death: New York City, New York, United States

Ancestry: Kittian and Nevisian American

City: New York City

U.S. State: New Yorkers, African-American From New Yorkers

Childhood & Early Life

Cicely Tyson was born on December 18, 1924, in Harlem, New York City, US, to immigrants Frederica Tyson and William Augustine Tyson. While her mother served as a domestic help, her father worked as a carpenter and painter.

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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 Ebonymagazine who offered her a career in modelling. Grabbing the opportunity, she turned to professional modelling.

Tyson’s stunning looks and charismatic personality helped her 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 1950 play. The following year, she grabbed a minor role in the NBC series Frontiers of Faith. Her first film role came in the 1956 flick Carib Gold.

In 1961, she appeared in the original cast of the 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 on 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 television series.

Following East Side/West Side, Tyson starred in a single episode of Slattery’s Peopleand I Spybefore 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 an important role in the film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in which 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 performed the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder. A film adaptation of an award-winning novel of the same name, Sounder received massive appreciation. Her 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 Jane Pittman in 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 several acclaimed and highly appreciated television shows, including Roots, King,and The Marva Collins Story, each of which earned her an Emmy Awards nomination in various categories.

Throughout the decade of the 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 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-Dixieand Diary of a Mad Black Woman.The latter proved a big 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 Strangerwhich earned her an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Pearl.

In 2011, Tyson was a part of the ensemble cast for the period film The Help. In the film, 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 Tyson the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She reprised her role for the television version of the play as well.

Since 2014, she guest-starred as Ophelia Harkness in How to Get Away with Murder and she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. In 2016, she appeared in a guest role as Doris Jones in House of Cards.

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Major Works

The magnum opus of Cicely Tyson’s career came in 1972, when she essayed the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder. The film received massive acclaim and appreciation. Her brilliant acting and outstanding performance helped her bag numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Actress nomination.

While Sounder had established Tyson’s reputation as a talented actress, the television series The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman made her a household name. Her top notch acting sills earned her two Primetime Emmy Awards and a BAFTA nomination.

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. She won her third Emmy Award 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 was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

In May 2009, she received an honorary degree from Morehouse College, an all-male college. Later, she received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Columbia and Howard University as well.

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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 was also honored by the Congress of Racial Equality and by the National Council of Negro Women.

Personal Life & Legacy

Tyson married Kenneth Franklin on December 27, 1942, at the age of 18. Her husband abandoned within eighteen months of marriage. The marriage was, however, formally dissolved in 1956.

Tyson dated the Jazz musician Myles Davis in the 1960s and the two were about to get married but Davis married singer Betty Davis in September 1968.

Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis got together in 1978, and the two married on November 26, 1981. This marriage, too, did not work and the two parted ways in 1988.

Cicely Tyson died on January 28, 2021, at the age of 96.

She co-founded Dance Theater of Harlem. To commemorate her contribution to the field of entertainment, a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, was renamed the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts.

Cicely Tyson Movies

1. The Help (2011)


2. Sounder (1972)

  (Drama, Family)

3. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)


4. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)


5. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

  (Crime, Drama, Thriller)

6. The Last Angry Man (1959)


7. A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1978)


8. A Man Called Adam (1966)

  (Drama, Music)

9. The Comedians (1967)


10. The River Niger (1976)



Primetime Emmy Awards
1994 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)
1974 Best Lead Actress in a Drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
1974 Actress of the Year - Special The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

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