“It’s the nobility that you respect.” When 2015 Kennedy Center Honoree Cicely Tyson spoke these words as Jane Pittman in her iconic 1974 role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” she was describing a strong and mighty oak tree that had weathered hundreds of years. Tyson’s character was also addressing her own 110 years of life, having borne many struggles as a former young African American slave girl in the American South.
Tyson was around 50 years old and midway through her life when she uttered those words in the critically-acclaimed film that would net her two Primetime Emmy Awards, one of which was an unprecedented award for Actress of the Year. She could not have known then that the poignant line would also one day sum up her own life as a vibrant role model for African American females and females in general, who would follow in her footsteps to pursue lead acting roles or other important careers.
Today, Tyson is 90 years old and still actively working in her field. Her legendary career encompasses six decades of stunning roles that frequently illuminated Civil Rights struggles, but also brought some of the strongest, most resilient female characters to the stage, screen and television.
Early Life and Roles
Cicely Tyson was born and raised in Harlem, New York in 1924. Her parents were West Indies immigrants who came to New York in 1919. A fashion editor at Ebony was drawn to Tyson’s stunning beauty and she subsequently launched a successful modeling career. Her first acting role came in 1951 on an NBC faith-based TV series called “Frontiers of Faith.” She turned to the Broadway stage with her acclaimed performance as Barbara Allen in “Dark of the Moon” in 1957 becoming her first notable theatrical role.
“Sounder,” Jane Pittman and Acting Fame
Cicely Tyson became the third African American woman in history to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1972 in her breakout portrayal of Rebecca Morgan in “Sounder,” who boldly led her sharecropper family through a crisis during the Great Depression. She followed it up with her epic Emmy-winning portrayal of Jane Pittman, which could arguably be deemed the most emotionally-impactful role of her career. Tyson’s physical, mental and emotional transformation over the course of Pittman’s deeply moving fictional autobiographical journey was astounding. She consequently became the first African American actress to win an Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie category.
From there, she built a long list of critically-acclaimed film and television credits including “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” for which she received her third Emmy Award. She picked up several Emmy nominations for her performances in “Roots,” “King,” “The Marva Collins Story,” and “A Lesson Before Dying.” By the ‘90s, Cicely Tyson had become one of the most respected and revered women on the big and small screen.
Recent Work and Legacy
Cicely Tyson passed the six decade mark in her extraordinary career in 2011 and she garnered multiple nominations as part of an ensemble for the role of Constantine Bates in “The Help.” She added Tony Award winner to her list of impressive accolades with her triumphant return to the Broadway stage in 2013 as Carrie Watts in “A Trip to Bountiful.” She won the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play and made history as the oldest person to ever win a Tony for acting. She reprised the role for a TV movie adaption in 2014 and she snagged two more Primetime Emmy nominations as executive producer for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie.
Tyson strives to lead and encourage future generations by offering strong support to the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, New Jersey. Her ongoing commitment to dig deep inside the human spirit and portray strong, positive black women who have endured hardship and overcome insurmountable odds will forever remain her grand, inspirational legacy.
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Lori Melton is a freelance writer. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.