Cicely Tyson, the stage, screen and television actress whose vivid portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in the dramatic arts of the 1970s, propelling her to stardom and fame as an exemplar for civil rights, died on Thursday. She was 96.
Her death was announced by her longtime manager, Larry Thompson, who provided no other details.
In a remarkable career of seven decades, Ms. Tyson broke ground for serious Black actors by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people. She urged Black colleagues to do the same, and often went without work. She was critical of films and television programs that cast Black characters as criminal, servile or immoral, and insisted that African-Americans, even if poor or downtrodden, should be portrayed with dignity.
Her chiseled face and willowy frame, striking even in her 90s, became familiar to millions in more than 100 film, television and stage roles, including some that had traditionally been given only to white actors. She won three Emmys and many awards from civil rights and women’s groups, and at 88 became the oldest person to win a Tony, for her 2013 Broadway role in a revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.”
At 93, she won an honorary Oscar, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and into the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. She also won a career achievement Peabody Award in 2020.Despite the gathering force of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, there were few substantial roles for talented, relatively unknown Black actresses like Ms. Tyson. She appeared in Broadway plays, television episodes and minor movie roles before playing Portia, a supporting but notable part in the 1968 film version of Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
But in 1972, in a film called “Sounder,” she found what she was looking for: a leading role with dignity. It was as Rebecca, the wife of a Louisiana sharecropper (played by Paul Winfield) who is imprisoned in 1933 for stealing food for his children. She rises to the challenge — cleaning houses, tilling fields, sweltering under the sun in a worn dress and braided cornrows — a Black woman whose excruciating beauty lies in toil and poverty.
“The story in ‘Sounder’ is a part of our history, a testimony to the strength of humankind,” Ms. Tyson told The New York Times after receiving rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for best actress. “Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”
In 1974, Ms. Tyson stunned a national television audience with her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of a former slave in the CBS special “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Born into slavery before the Civil War, Miss Pittman survives for more than a century to see the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At 110, she tells her story, the searing experience of a Black woman in the South. Then, in her only gesture of protest, she sips from a whites-only drinking fountain.