Following the sad news that Hollywood icon Cicely Tyson has died, we take a look at five of the actor’s best TV and film roles to celebrate her legacy.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Hollywood legend Cicely Tyson has died aged 96. The pioneering actor was known and celebrated for always portraying strong Black female characters. She helped shape the course of history and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Barack Obama in 2016.
“In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it,” the former president wrote in a tribute. “She had a heart unlike any other – and for 96 years, she left a mark on the world that few will ever match.”
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“From her iconic roles and dedication to her craft, to being the first Black woman to wear her hair naturally on TV, to being my first movie grandmother and guiding me with such care… her impact is truly incalculable,” added actor Yara Shahidi in an Instagram post.
To honour Tyson’s incredible legacy, we’ve rounded up the films and TV shows that she helped shake up the world with during her career, from The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman to East Side/West Side.
Cicely Tyson’s best TV and film roles
East Side/West Side
East Side/West Side was an American series in the 60s that was considered gritty and dark at the time for taking on social issues. Tyson played Jane Foster, a secretary who worked for a New York social worker.
She was the first Black woman to take on a main role in the series, and it was one of the first continuing roles for a Black actor in a prime-time TV drama. She was also one of the first successful Black actors to wear her natural hair in an afro.
“For the first time a black person of either sex was given a regular TV role of some dignity,” she told People in a 1974 interview.
Sounder was the 1972 film adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s novel about a family of Black sharecroppers during the Depression who fight to get their children an education. Tyson played the mother, Rebecca Morgan.
In her last interview on Live with Kelly and Ryan, Tyson recalled how she was originally turned down for the role, saying: “They said, ‘You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too sexy, you’re too this, you’re too that’ and I said ‘But I’m an actress’.”
Tyson went on to be nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for best actress for her role in Sounder. She also won the NSFC and NBR awards for best actress.
The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman
Tyson played the titlular role in the 1974 television film The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, which was based on a novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines. Tyson portrayed a 110-year-old Black woman who looks back on her life from slavery until the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. In the powerful final scene of the film, Jane goes to drink from a water fountain to desegregate it.
This is perhaps Tyson’s most beloved role, winning her a Primetime Emmy and an Emmy for best actress. She became the first Black female actor to win any Primetime Emmy.
Reflecting on what the role really meant to people, Tyson recently told Interview: “Ernest [J. Gaines] picked me up and he took me to his home, and in his home were all these ladies, friends of his mother’s and grandmother’s, and so on and so forth. That’s when he explained to me that as a child they were always at his home and that Jane was a compilation of all of these ladies in his life.”
Roots was a 70s American television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It follows the story of Kunta Kinte, a man sold into slavery whose family goes on to observe notable events in American history, such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and emancipation.
Tyson starred alongside Maya Angelou in the first episode, portraying Kunta Kinte’s mother, Binta. The series received 37 Primetime Emmy nominations and won nine.
How To Get Away With Murder
In 2014, Tyson guest-starred on hit Netflix series How to Get Away with Murder as Ophelia Harkness, the mother of main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). She continued the role and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for it in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Speaking about working with Tyson, Oscar-winner Davis said: “You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. You gave me permission to dream…. because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself.”
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