Cicely Tyson, award-winning actor and The Help star, dead at 96

Gillian Wolski
·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·3-min read

Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actress who starred in The Help and earned an Oscar nod for her role as a sharecropper’s wife in the 1972 film, Sounder, has died at the age of 96.

Tyson’s passing was announced on Friday morning by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.

Cicely Tyson attends the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards on September 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Cicely Tyson (pictured at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards) has died at the age of 96. Photo: Getty Images.

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” read a statement issued through Thompson.

The one-time model began her screen career with bit parts in the late 1950s but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally beginning to be cast in starring roles.

The film Sounder, based on the William H. Hunter novel, confirmed her stardom in 1972. Tyson played Rebecca Morgan, the Depression-era wife of a sharecropper (Paul Winfield) who was jailed for stealing a piece of meat leaving her to care for their children and crops.

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Actress Cicely Tyson hugs a young boy in a scene from the movie Sounder, 1972
Cicely Tyson in a scene from the 1972 film Sounder which earned her a best actress Academy Award nomination. Photo: Getty Images.

Star-studded career

Tyson’s performance in Sounder attracted rave reviews and she was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress that same year, making her the third-ever African-American actress to be nominated for that award.

She was honoured several more times throughout her 70-year career on stage and screen. Tyson won two Emmys and touched TV viewers’ hearts by playing a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. A new generation of moviegoers saw her as Constantine Jefferson in the 2011 film, The Help.

Tyson received a Tony Award in 2013 at the age of 88 for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.”

In 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar statuette at the annual Governors Awards.

“I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time,” Tyson said at the time.

“I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it.”

‘I’m still here’

Tyson’s passing comes just days after her revealing memoir, Just As I Am, was released. In a recent TV interview about her book, the 96-year-old told host Gayle King that she felt she had more to do in this life.

“That’s why I’m still here,” she said.

King then asked Tyson how she’d like to be remembered, to which she replied: “I’ve done my best. That’s all.”

She also opened up about being sexually assaulted by a well-known acting coach earlier on in her career.

At the age of 17, she gave birth to a daughter to whom she dedicated her memoir. Tyson raised ‘Joan,’ as she calls her in her book, largely out of the spotlight and said that the pair “continue to work on our relationship, as fragile as it is precious”.

Tyson was married once, to jazz great Miles Davis. They wed in front of a star-studded crowd in 1981 at Bill Cosby’s house in Greenfield, Massachusetts, but divorced seven years later.

Additional reporting by AP.

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