Cisely Tyson pioneer African American actress dies at 96

Cisely Tyson when she was 80
Cisely Tyson when she was 80

Cisely Tyson, the pioneering African American model and actress has died at age 96.

Her manager, Larry Thompson, confirmed her death in a statement that called working with her “a privilege and a blessing.”

“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Thompson said in a written statement.

Through a career that lasted decades, she is best remembered for the 1974 TV miniseries “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” in which revolutionary ageing makeup helped her portray the title character from early adulthood into her final years as a centenarian.

The role earned Tyson Emmys for best actress in a drama and actress of the year.

Tyson was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2018 for her body of work, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences citing her “unforgettable performances and personal integrity.”

She had been nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film “Sounder” in 1973.

Tyson continued to work regularly into her 90s, including on popular TV programs such as “House of Cards” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”

The actress chronicled her lengthy career in her first memoir, “Just As I Am,” which was just released Tuesday.

“Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life,” Thompson said.

“Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

Throughout her acting career, she was committed to roles that she felt uplifted Black womanhood in some way.

She was born in Harlem on December 19, 1924, the daughter of immigrants from the island of Nevis. Raised in a devoutly Episcopalian household, she was forbidden even from going to the movies.

After she was casually told that she should try modelling, Tyson appeared in a hair show and registered at Barbara Watson Modeling School.

Soon thereafter she gave up her job as a secretary for the American Red Cross and quickly became one of the top Black models in the country.

She would later admit that her time modelling was unfulfilling: “I felt like a machine,” she told Time magazine.

Modelling, too, was merely a steppingstone. While she was waiting for an appointment with Ebony magazine’s fashion editor, Tyson was spotted by actress Evelyn Davis.

According to Tyson, “When I walked by, she took one look at me and said, ‘Lord, what a face!’ She said I’d be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned Blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran out—but here I am.”

Her decision to act infuriated her deeply-religious mother and led to estrangement between them that lasted for years.

Tyson studied under such theatrical luminaries as Lee Strasberg, Lloyd Richards, and Vinnette Carroll. In 1961, she joined the now legendary cast of the original off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a production that starred, at various times throughout its run, a host of actors who would become household names.

“That play produced Maya Angelou, myself, Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, (playwright Charles) Gordone, who won the Pulitzer Prize (for No Place to Be Somebody). Every Black actor of note came through that show,” Tyson said in a 1995 interview. “It ran for three years, and in the course of its existence, we all left, went off and did other things and came back. I was in and out of it four times.”

Tyson starred on television alongside George C. Scott as a social worker in the 1963 television series East Side/West Side, the first time an African-American actor had a starring role on a major TV series.

*Read More in Daily Beast

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