By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 28, 2021 at 08:27 PM EST
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Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Hollywood legend known for her performances in film and TV projects including Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has died at 96.

Her longtime manager Larry Thompson confirmed the news. "I have managed Miss Tyson's career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing," he said in a statement. "Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree."

Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Over the course of Tyson's long and storied career, she was the recipient of three Emmy Awards, a SAG award, a Tony Award, and an honorary Oscar. She was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her critically acclaimed role as Rebecca Morgan in the 1972 film Sounder.

Beginning her career as a fashion model, Tyson rose to become one of the most respected actresses of her generation, continually breaking barriers and redefining the depiction of Black women on screen. She adamantly refused to take roles she found to be demeaning or stereotypical toward Black women, including strictly avoiding ever playing drug addicts, prostitutes, or maids.

Tyson first broke ground on television, scoring the first-ever recurring role for a Black woman in a drama series on East Side/West Side. She was nominated for an Emmy a total of 16 times over the course of her career, winning for the 1974 telefilm The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which followed her titular character as she aged from 23 to 110. Tyson won again for Supporting Actress in 1994, for her work in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

She regularly brought to life real American heroes or contributed to groundbreaking storytelling, as when she portrayed Kunta Kinte's mother in the 1977 miniseries Roots. Other notable historical figures she played include Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries King, educator Marva Collins in the 1981 telefilm The Marva Collins Story, and Harriet Tubman in the 1978 series A Woman Called Moses.

More recently, Tyson endeared herself to TV audiences as Annalise Keating's mother, Ophelia Harkness, on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder. The role earned her five Emmy nominations for Best Performance by a Guest Actress.

In addition to her impressive onscreen work, Tyson also made her mark on the stage, winning the 2013 Tony Award for her role as Carrie Watts in the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful. She reprised the role for a television adaptation, which earned her yet another Emmy nomination.

Tyson was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015, and in 2016 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Last year, she received a career achievement honor from the Peabody Awards.

She never slowed down in her seven decades of work, and just this week had published a memoir, Just As I Am, reflecting on her storied career and her personal life, including her relationship with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Born Dec. 19, 1924, in Harlem, New York, Tyson was the daughter of immigrants from the West Indies. Discovered by a photographer working for Ebony magazine, she began her career as a fashion model and went on to become a style icon, appearing in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Tyson worked frequently in theater in the early 1960s, appearing in the original cast of Jean Genet's The Blacks alongside James Earl Jones and Roscoe Lee Browne. The show became the longest-running Off Broadway non-musical of the decade. She also appeared in 1962's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, 1963's Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, and 1963's The Blue Boy in Black, with Billy Dee Williams. Other notable stage roles include 1968 play Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights and a 1969 lineup of Lorraine Hansberry readings titled To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. She was also a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969.

Tyson made her film debut in 1957's Carib Gold, and had uncredited roles in the 1959 films Odds Against Tomorrow and The Last Angry Man. Moving in to the '60s, she gained exposure on television in projects like Brown Girl, Brownstones, and Between Yesterday and Today, and on film in titles like A Man Called AdamThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and The Comedians.

Catching the eye of George C. Scott with her stage work in The Blacks, Tyson was invited to play his assistant on East Side/West Side, breaking new ground for Black women on television and leading to more TV work in shows like Naked City, I Spy, The Nurses, The Bill Cosby Show, and Slattery's People.

Toward the end of the '60s, Tyson focused more on stage and television work, perturbed by the blaxploitation trend in movies. But she returned triumphantly to feature film in Sounder, earning her sole Academy Award nomination.

From there on, she worked steadily in both television and film. Notable television projects include The Wilma Rudolph Story, When No One Would Listen, The Marva Collins Story, The Women of Brewster Place, Benny's Place, Playing With Fire, Acceptable Risks, Heat Wave, Duplicates, A Lesson Before Dying, The Rosa Parks Story, House of Cards, Madam Secretary, and the Lifetime adaptation of The Trip to Bountiful, which she also executive-produced. Tyson also played an attorney on NBC's short-lived 1995 civil rights legal drama Sweet Justice.

In 1983, she returned to Broadway to appear in a revival of The Corn is Green. Notable film roles over the years included parts in A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Bustin' Loose, Fried Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Idlewild.

As she aged, Tyson's output only seemed to increase, playing a small but notable role as the maid Constantine in 2011's The Help. She also appeared in a string of Tyler Perry films, including 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman and 2006's Madea's Family Reunion. Tyson returned to the stage in 2013 after two decades away, finally fulfilling a dream she'd held since 1985 of starring in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful. She took her final turn on Broadway in 2015's The Gin Game.

Tyson was notably connected to jazz icon Miles Davis. They first began dating in the 1960s, and he used a photo of her for his 1967 album Sorcerer. They split, but reunited in 1978, and they were were married from 1981 to 1988. Davis credited Tyson with helping him overcome his cocaine addiction, but Tyson rarely spoke publicly about it until this year, when she opened up about the volatile relationship in her memoir Just As I Am, published Jan. 26.

Tyson had no children but is survived by her niece Cathy Tyson.

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