Viola Davis, LeVar Burton, and more honor the late, great Cicely Tyson: 'An artist of the highest order'
Tributes are pouring in as Hollywood celebrates the life and legacy of iconic actress Cicely Tyson, who died Thursday at 96.
In addition to her acclaimed work in film and TV projects like Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Tyson has long been hailed as a groundbreaking performer who broke barriers and opened doors for Black actors and actresses. She scored the first-ever recurring role for a Black woman in a drama series on East Side/West Side in 1963, and she became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar in 2018.
In a lengthy, moving post on Instagram, Davis mourned the loss of her onscreen mom on How to Get Away with Murder. Tyson received five Emmy nominations for portraying Ophelia Harkness, the mother of Davis' Annalise Keating, on the ABC drama.
"I'm devastated. My heart is just broken. I loved you so much!! You were everything to me!" Davis wrote alongside a sweet photo of the two hugging. "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."
She continued, "I'm not ready for you to be my angel yet. But...I also understand that it's only when the last person who has a memory of you dies, that you'll truly be dead. In that case, you will be immortal. Thank you for shifting my life. Thank you for the long talks. Thank you for loving me. Rest well."
Burton, who also had Tyson as an onscreen mother, shared a touching photo of the two of them from Roots. Tyson earned an Emmy nod in 1977 for portraying Binta, the mother of Burton's Kunta Kinte, in the iconic miniseries.
"This one cuts deep," Burton tweeted. "@IAmCicelyTyson was my first screen Mom.. Elegance, warmth, beauty, wisdom, style and abundant grace. She was as regal as they come. An artist of the highest order, I will love her forever… RIP."
Oprah Winfrey looked back on the time she got to honor Tyson at the Legends Ball in 2005, and spoke to the actress' broader impact.
"Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job," Winfrey wrote. "She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people. The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised. Her life so fully lived is a testimony to Greatness."
Tyler Perry, who directed Tyson in projects like A Fall From Grace, revealed he was watching one of her movies when Winfrey called him to say Tyson had passed.
"She was the grandmother I never had and the wisdom tree that I could always sit under to fill my cup. My heart breaks in one beat, while celebrating her life in the next," he wrote on Instagram. "To think that she lived for 96 years and I got to be a part of the last 16 brings me great joy. She called me son. Well, today your son grieves your loss and will miss our long talks, your laughter from your belly, and your very presence. Always so regal, always so classy, always a lady, always a queen. Every time we would talk I would ask, 'How are you?' and you would say, 'I'm still here. He must have something he wants me to do.' Well, I think it's safe to say you have done all you were put here to do, and we are all better for it."
Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood, who both worked with Tyson numerous times over the years, reminisced about starring opposite her in the play The Trip to Bountiful, which won Tyson a Tony in 2013.
"Every night on stage, every day on that set, I was learning at the hands of an absolute master of her craft," Underwood wrote. "My heart is heavy. Thank you Ms. Tyson for paving the way, thank you for your grace & thank you, Your Majesty for lifting us to higher heights! Rest In Peace…Queen. You've run the race & returned home VICTORIOUS!"
"Acting with her in 3 separate projects in my career has been such an honor but sharing the Broadway stage with her 8 shows a week was the true life lesson of witnessing fortitude, power and the Holy Spirit in front of my eyes," Williams said. "At the end of each performance we would pick her up and carry her off into the wings as she giggled with delight. Her eyes light up like a teenager and she would say 'that was a good one'. You were the 'Great One' in your tremendous life. Love your dearly and Rest In Peace 'Mother Watts.'"
Like many, How to Get Away with Murder creator Shonda Rhimes first reacted to Tyson's death in shock.
"I really need this not to be true," she tweeted when news first broke.
After retweeting posts celebrating the actress, Rhimes posted her own tribute, along with a photo of her with Tyson.
"She was an extraordinary person. And this is an extraordinary loss," Rhimes wrote. "She had so much to teach. And I still have so much to learn. I am grateful for every moment. Her power and grace will be with us forever."
Just a few days before, Rhimes had implored her fans to read Tyson's new memoir, Just As I Am: "Miss. Cicely Tyson. Buy #JustAsIAm. Study it. Tell your friends to do the same. Cicely Tyson is a national treasure."
Many other stars also remembered Tyson as a trailblazer who helped pave the way for other Black creatives.
"A pioneer. Many doors are open because of this very soul. Thank you for everything, Cicely," Jackée Harry tweeted. She also shared photos of the two on the set of The Women of Brewster Place.
Insecure star and writer Natasha Rothwell put it simply and beautifully: "Rest in power, Cicely. I am because you were."
Read on for more tributes.