Trailblazing actor Cicely Tyson, whose commanding moral presence carried her through roles playing everything from a slave to a Harlem mobster, died Thursday. She was 96.
Her manager, Larry Thompson, confirmed her death to the Daily News.
“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” said Thompson, noting that Tyson’s memoir “Just As I Am,” was published by HarperCollins only days ago.
“Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today, she placed the last ornament, a star, on top of the tree,” he added.
Tyson, whose legion of fans included such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, shined on screen, stage and television, playing strong women who almost always got the last word.
She was Kunta Kinte’s mother in “Roots,” a numbers-running queen in “Hoodlum,” the proud mother of a teacher in “A Lesson Before Dying,” a philosophical maid in “The Help,” and the tough-talking matriarch of the Shonda Rhimes-produced ABC hit “How to Get Away with Murder.”
But it was her role as a defiant slave who lived long enough to triumph in the victories of the civil rights movement, that earned Tyson her legendary status.
“The Autobiography of Jane Pittman,” the television adaptation of an Ernest Gaines novel, was among the first made-for-TV movies to deal with the plight of southern blacks, and Tyson was almost synonymous with the fictional title role that led to two of her three Primetime Emmy awards.
Tyson was defiant and inspirational to the end. In one of her last roles, during an appearance on the series finale of “Madam Secretary,” Tyson’s character talked the nation’s first woman president into reviving the equal rights amendment.
The roles didn’t always come easy for Tyson. Early on, she had trouble finding work because she flatly refused to do “blaxploitation” films, which were all the rage in the 1970s.
“Unless a piece really said something, I had no interest in it,” she told an interviewer in 1983. “I have got to know that I have served some purpose here.’’
But for all her time in the spotlight, on the Broadway stage, on the television screen or making movies in Hollywood, Tyson’s most challenging role might have been the real-life one she played behind the scenes — as jazz legend Miles Davis’ wife.
Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem on Dec. 19, 1924. When she was 18, she walked away from a typing job and began modeling.
Although she was forbidden from seeing plays or movies as a child, Tyson was bit by the acting bug, and when she got her first job in the field, her religious mother kicked her out of their home for choosing a sinful path.
They reconciled, and Tyson found success in the industry. Among her biggest roles was “Sounder” in 1972, when she played the wife of a Depression-era sharecropper who holds her family together after her husband goes to jail for stealing food to feed his family. Tyson received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.