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Tyson, Cicely

Tyson, Cicely

December 19, 1939

Born to immigrant parents from Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, television, screen, and stage actress Cicely Tyson grew up in East Harlem in New York City. Her father worked as a carpenter, at times selling fruit and vegetables from a pushcart, while her mother worked as a domestic. After the divorce of her parents she lived with her mother, who forbade secular theatrical entertainment such as movies. It was in Saint John's Episcopal Church in Harlem, where she sang and played the organ, that Tyson's theatrical talents surfaced.

After graduating from high school and taking a job as a secretary with the American Red Cross, Tyson was asked to model hairstyles by her hairdresser. He encouraged her to enroll in the Barbara Watson Modeling School, where she met Ebony fashion editor Freda DeKnight. Soon she was appearing on the covers of the major fashion magazines in the United States, such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

In 1957 Tyson had a small part in the film Twelve Angry Men with Henry Fonda. Two years later she made her stage debut, starring in Dark of the Moon directed by Vinnette Carroll and produced by the Harlem YMCA's Drama Guild. In 1962 she appeared in both Moon on the Rainbow Shawl and Jean Genet's The Blacks, for which she received a Vernon Rice Award.

Tyson was recruited in 1963 for a lead role in the CBS television series East Side, West Side, becoming the first African-American actress to be a regular on a dramatic television series. The same year she appeared on stage with Alvin Ailey in the Broadway production of Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright and in the Off-Broadway production of The Blue Boy in Black, playing opposite Billy Dee Williams. In 1968 she appeared in the film The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for which she received critical and public acclaim for her performance.

Tyson waited four years before doing film work again because of her decision not to accept roles that added to the negative stereotypes of African Americans. Then, in 1972 she accepted the role of Rebecca in the film Sounder. Her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

In 1974 Tyson received two Emmy Awardsone for best lead actress in a drama and the other for actress of the yearfor her portrayal of aged ex-slave Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. She went on to play other socially conscious roles for television, including the part of Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses (1976), Kunte Kinte's mother in Roots (1977), and Coretta Scott King in King (1978).

On Thanksgiving Day 1981 Tyson married jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis's third attempt at marriage and Tyson's first, the arrangement lasted seven years. Tyson continues to be active in film and television, appearing with Oprah Winfrey in the television miniseries The Women of Brewster Place in 1989 and in the film Fried Green Tomatoes in 1991. In 1994 she won an Emmy for her performance in The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and in 1999 she appeared in the highly regarded television movie A Lesson Before Dying. She sponsors the Cicely Tyson School for the Performing Arts in East Orange, New Jersey. Scheduled for 2005 is The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, in which she appears as the character Myrtle.

See also Film in the United States, Contemporary; Television


Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in America. Brooklyn, N.Y.:Carlson, 1993.

Mapp, Edward, ed. Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts.Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990.

joseph e. lowndes (1996)

sabrina fuchs (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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