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Cicely Tyson

Brought Her Talent To The Stage

In 1959 Tyson appeared in Carroll's Off-Broadway revival of the musical The Dark of the Moon, and in a Broadway variety show called Talent '59; she also understudied for Eartha Kitt in the role of Jolly Rivers in Jolly's Progress. Tyson landed a small part in the film Odds Against Tomorrow and a larger one in the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, which starred Henry Fonda. When she first auditioned for Twelve Angry Men, Tyson was told she was too chic to play the part of a girl from the slums, and was turned away. "I went home and got myself up in a costume that was out of this world," she recalled to Ms. "I found a skirt that was too big and botched up the hemline. Then I put on a dirty raincoat, sloppy shoes, an old hat, and mussed up my hair." When Tyson returned to the auditions, the office secretary didn't even want to let her in the door, but the casting agent was suitably impressed, and she was hired.

At a Glance...

Born on December 19, 1933, in New York, NY; daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson; married Miles Davis (a jazz musician), November 1981 (divorced). Education: Studied drama at New York University, Actors Studio, and with Vinnette Carroll and Lloyd Richards.

Career: Photographic model during the late 1950s; actress, 1959–; Jewels of Unity jewelry line, designer, 1999–.

Memberships: Co-founder, Dance Theater of Harlem; trustee, Human Family Institute, American Film Institute.

Awards: Vernon Rice Award, 1962, for The Blacks; Vernon Rice Award, 1963, for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Academy Award nomination for best actress, Atlanta Film Festival Award for best actress, and National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress, all 1972, all for Sounder; Emmy Awards for best actress in a television special, and best actress of the year, 1974, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; Emmy Award, for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or a special, 1994, for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All; Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for performance, 2003; also recipient of awards from NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, and National Federation of Black Women Business Owners in Washington. Name graces, Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, East Orange, NJ, 1995–.

Addresses: Home—Malibu Beach, CA. Office—c/o Larry Thompson, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 183, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

In 1961 Tyson became one of the original cast members of the Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's controversial drama The Blacks. She was in good company: that first cast also included James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques. Tyson played a prostitute named Virtue, and her stunning performance won her a Vernon Rice Award in 1962. Her other New York theater work included Cool World, God's Trombones, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, The Blue Boy in Black, and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. She was willing to try almost any sort of role, but steadfastly refused to sing or dance: although perfectly capable of both, she felt that blacks were never expected to do anything else, and wished to break away from that stereotype.

In the early 1960s, Tyson became one of the few black faces to be seen regularly on television. Actor George C. Scott had admired her work in The Blacks and asked her to play a continuing role in his television series East Side/West Side, a CBS-TV series about social workers. The short, natural hairstyle she wore in that show caused a sensation and is often singled out as the beginnings of the Afro trend. According to Ms., "the first young black actress to face film and television cameras with hair unstraightened...provoked a not-too-minor earthquake within the American minds of young black women.... All black women needed was some public person to take the first step toward a more positive identification with African beauty. And that person was Cicely Tyson." Donald Bogle, author of Blacks in American Film and Television, commented: "Tyson was a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and a regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. [Audiences] sensed...her power and range.... Watching the young Tyson, one often has the feeling that, through the turn of a line or a look or gesture, at any moment something extraordinary could happen."

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Tyson was a frequent guest star on television, appearing in I Spy, Naked City, The Nurses, The Bill Cosby Show, and many other programs. Her film career progressed more slowly. She played the love interest to Sammy Davis, Jr.'s jazz musician character in the 1966 movie A Man Called Adam, appeared in The Comedians in 1967, and turned in an affecting, if brief, performance as a doctor's rebellious daughter in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. But by then, the film industry was entering the period of so- called "blaxploitation" films, which Tyson considered depressing and demeaning. According to People Tyson said "she would rather be unemployed than act in exploitation films like Shaft and Superfly," adding that "The lesser of two evils for me is to wait, rather than do something that isn't right." For nearly six years, she hardly appeared before the cameras at all, with the exception of an occasional television guest spot. There were no parts being offered that she felt were worth taking—and she was even ready to forsake her acting career altogether, if it came to that.

Fortunately, it didn't. Some six years after beginning work on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Tyson was offered the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel Sounder. The story was a major departure from standard Hollywood fare of that time in that it depicted a black family in the Depression-era South with dignity and sensitivity. Tyson's Rebecca is a sharecropper's wife who is forced to carry on alone after her husband is jailed for stealing a piece of meat to feed his family. "Cicely Tyson is superb," enthused Jay Cocks in his Time review of the film. "It falls to her not only to display warmth toward her family but also to show such shreds of defiance and muted fury [against] a world that has always threatened to grind her down. For its range and its richness, and for its carefully portioned power, it is an indelible performance."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments:Cicely Tyson Biography - Career Began In Modeling, Brought Her Talent To The Stage, Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black Women - Selected works