Cicely L. Tyson (born December 19, 1924) is an American actress and former fashion model. In a career spanning more than seven decades, she became known for her portrayal of strong African-American women. Tyson is the recipient of three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actor Guild Award, one Tony Award and an honorary Academy Award.
Having appeared in minor film and television roles early in her career, Tyson garnered widespread attention and critical acclaim for her performance as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder (1972); she was nominated for both the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her work in the film. Tyson's portrayal of the title role in the 1974 television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her further praise; among other accolades, the role won her two Emmy Awards and a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Tyson has continued to act in film and on television in the 21st century. In 2011, she played the role of Constantine Jefferson in the award-winning film The Help. She has also played the role of Ophelia Harkness in American Broadcasting Company's legal drama How to Get Away With Murder since the show's inception in 2014, for which she was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series four times.
In addition to her screen career, Tyson has appeared in various theater productions. She received a Drama Desk Award in 1962 for her Off-Broadway performance in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. Tyson also starred as Carrie Watts in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful, winning the Tony Award, the Outer Critics Award, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play in 2013.
Tyson was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015. In November 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Tyson was born in Harlem on December 19, 1924, the daughter of Frederica Tyson, a domestic worker, and William Augustine Tyson, who worked as a carpenter, painter, and at any other jobs he could find. Her parents were immigrants from Nevis in the West Indies. Her father arrived in New York City at age 21 and was processed at Ellis Island on August 4, 1919.
Tyson was discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine and became a popular fashion model. Her first acting role was on the NBC series Frontiers of Faith in 1951. Tyson played her first stage role in 1950 and her first film role in Carib Gold in 1956, but she went on to do more television work, such as the celebrated series East Side/West Side, in which she became the first African American to star in a television drama, and the soap opera The Guiding Light.
In 1961, Tyson appeared in the original cast of French playwright Jean Genet's The Blacks, the longest running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, running for 1,408 performances. On March 25, 1963, Tyson appeared on the game show To Tell The Truth as a decoy contestant for Shirley Abicair. She appeared with Sammy Davis Jr. in the film A Man Called Adam (1966) and starred in the film version of Graham Greene's The Comedians (1967). Tyson had a featured role in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), and appeared in a segment of Roots.
In 1972, Tyson played the role of Rebecca Morgan in the critically acclaimed film Sounder. She was nominated for both the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her work in Sounder, and also won the NSFC Best Actress and NBR Best Actress Awards.
In 1974, Tyson played the title role in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Tyson's portrayal of a young black slave won her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie and an Emmy Award for Actress of the Year – Special. Tyson was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in this television film.
Tyson's acclaimed television roles include: Binta in the 1977 miniseries Roots, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries King, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Marva Collins in the 1981 television film The Marva Collins Story, for which she received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie, and Muriel in the 1986 television film Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, for which she received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.
In 1991, Tyson appeared in Fried Green Tomatoes as Sipsey. In the 1994–95 television series Sweet Justice, Tyson portrayed a civil rights activist and attorney named Carrie Grace Battle, a character she shaped by reportedly consulting with noted Washington, D.C. civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Other notable film roles include the dramas Hoodlum (1997) and Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), and the television films Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994) (for which she received her third Emmy Award) and A Lesson Before Dying (1999). In 2005, Tyson co-starred in Because of Winn-Dixie.
In 2010, Tyson appeared in Why Did I Get Married Too? and narrated the Paul Robeson Award-winning documentary, Up from the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream. In 2011, Tyson appeared in her first music video in Willow Smith's 21st Century Girl. That same year, she played Constantine Jefferson, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the critically acclaimed period drama The Help. Set in the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the film won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Acting Ensemble and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
At the 67th Tony Awards on June 9, 2013, Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful. She also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play for the role.
In 2013, Tyson played a supporting role in the horror film The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia. Since 2014, Tyson has guest-starred in How to Get Away with Murder as Ophelia Harkness, the mother of main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis); for this role, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, 2017 and 2018.In 2020 she was in the popular movie A Fall From Grace featured on Netflix.
In addition to her Screen Actor Guild Award, her Tony Award, her Emmy Awards, and her Black Reel Awards, Tyson has received several other honors.
Tyson has received honorary degrees from Columbia University; Howard University; and Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college.
In 1977, Tyson was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 1982, Tyson was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award. The award is given to outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry. In 1988, Tyson received a Candace Award for Distinguished Service from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
In 2005, Tyson was honored at Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball. She has also been honored by the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Council of Negro Women.
The Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, was named after her in 2009.
Tyson was awarded the NAACP's 2010 Spingarn Medal for her contribution to the entertainment industry, her modeling career, and her support of civil rights.
Tyson was a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. She was awarded the United States' highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in November 2016.
In September 2018, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Tyson would receive an honorary Academy Award. On November 18, 2018, Tyson became the first African-American woman to receive an honorary Oscar.
In 2018, Tyson was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. She was chosen to be inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame in 2020.
Tyson first dated jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1960s, while he was going through his divorce with dancer Frances Davis. Davis used a photo of Tyson for his 1967 album, Sorcerer. Davis told the press in 1967 that he intended to marry Tyson in March 1968 after his divorce was finalized, but he married singer Betty Davis that September. Tyson and Davis rekindled their relationship in 1978. They were married on November 26, 1981 in a ceremony conducted by Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at the home of actor Bill Cosby. Their marriage was tumultuous due to Davis' volatile temper and infidelity. Davis credited Tyson with saving his life and helping him overcome his cocaine addiction. They resided in Malibu, California and New York City, until she filed for divorce in 1988. Their divorce was finalized in 1989, two years before Davis died in 1991.
Tyson has no children. She is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Awards and nominations
|2018||Academy Honorary Award||-||Won|
Golden Globe Awards
|1973||Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama||Sounder||Nominated|
|Daytime Emmy Award|
|1982||Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming – Performers||The Human Body: Becoming a Woman||Nominated|
|Primetime Emmy Award|
|1974||Best Lead Actress in a Drama||The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman||Won|
|Actress of the Year – Special||Won|
|1977||Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series||Roots||Nominated|
|1978||Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series||King||Nominated|
|1982||Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Special||Hallmark Hall of Fame||Nominated|
|1994||Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special||Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All||Won|
|1995||Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series||Sweet Justice||Nominated|
|1999||Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie||A Lesson Before Dying||Nominated|
|2009||Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie||Relative Stranger||Nominated|
|2014||Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie||The Trip to Bountiful||Nominated|
|Outstanding Television Movie||Nominated|
|2015||Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series||How to Get Away with Murder||Nominated|
|2013||Best Actress in a Play||The Trip to Bountiful||Won|