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Legendary Stage And Screen Actress Cicely Tyson Has Died At 96

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It should come as no surprise that Cicely Tyson's career would begin near the start of the civil rights movement. She fought on screen and on the stage for the same humanity that activists fought for in Selma, Montgomery and elsewhere. The Emmy- and Tony-Award-winning actress died on Thursday night at the age of 96. Less than a week ago, she spoke with NPR's Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CICELY TYSON: I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were certain issues I had to address, and I would use my career as my platform.

MCCAMMON: Tyson kept her word, inspiring generations of African American actors. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Cicely Tyson brought grace and gravitas to the roles she played. And boy, did she have range in "Sounder." She was a wife and mother in a family of Black sharecroppers in Louisiana in the 1930s. The part called for Tyson to be tender with her family...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUNDER")

TYSON: (As Rebecca) I'm fixing to bake a cake for David Lee to take to your daddy this time.

KEVIN HOOKS: (As David Lee) Make it chocolate cake, Mom. Daddy likes things that's chocolate.

BLAIR: ...And seethe when the town's white sheriff won't let her see her husband, who's in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUNDER")

TYSON: (As Rebecca) You got your lowlife job, Mr. Sheriff.

BLAIR: With Tyson, it was her eyes that spoke. They could sparkle in one scene and then pierce the soul in another. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was a wonder to see the subtleties in her performance. In 1972, "Sounder" was one of the first movies to show the strong bonds of a loving Black family. Tyson once told NPR it was also the movie that made her realize she needed to look for roles that reflected her experience as an African American woman. During a press conference for "Sounder," a white journalist told her the movie made him aware of his own prejudice because he said he was surprised to hear African American children call their father Daddy, just like his kids called him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TYSON: He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he. And really, I admired him for standing up in an audience and saying that. And I thought to myself, Cicely, you really can't afford the luxury of just being an actress.

BLAIR: Cicely Tyson was born in Harlem. Her parents were from the Caribbean. Her father was a carpenter and a painter. Her mother was a housekeeper who was deeply religious. In 2005, Tyson told NPR their lives revolved around the church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TYSON: We did everything in the church. I mean, we - I played the organ. I played the piano. I taught Sunday school. I sang in the choir. And then on Monday, we had prayer meeting. And Tuesday, we had young people's meeting. Wednesday, we had old people's meeting. And we just - Saturday, we cleaned the church. And Sunday, we were right back in the church. My entire social life was in and about the church. And so that is the basis of my foundation.

BLAIR: Tyson was also gorgeous. She started modeling after high school. Soon, she was acting in movies and on TV. It was the 1960s, the civil rights movement. New York was a place where Black artists formed alliances. Tyson performed in shows with all-Black casts alongside artists like Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. One of Tyson's first roles was in the socially conscious but short-lived TV series "East Side/West Side." Tyson played a poised, intelligent secretary in an office of social workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE")

TYSON: (As Jane Foster) He found out that I like to read books, but I couldn't go to the library. Negro children didn't go to the library.

BLAIR: Tyson's short Afro hairstyle inspired other Black women to also wear their hair natural. She was on magazine covers like Ebony and Ms. She married jazz star Miles Davis. Photographers swooned over the famous couple.

Cicely Tyson always looked for positive portrayals of Black women. In 1974, she took on one of her most famous characters, the lead in "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you 110 years old?

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) So they tell me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How far back can you remember?

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) How far back you want to go?

BLAIR: With the help of a stunning makeup job, Tyson transformed herself to play Miss Jane Pittman. She made her body look withered and frail. It was a rare event for a TV network to broadcast a feature film about the brutal struggles of African Americans in prime time from the point of view of African Americans. Tyson played Miss Pittman at various stages in her life. As a young adult, she's beaten up by Klansmen. Friends and family members are murdered. Tyson captured her wariness, as well as her resilience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN")

TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) The other day, they throwed a girl in jail for trying to drink from the fountain. Today, they killed my Jimmy. And I say I'm going.

BLAIR: Miss Jane Pittman walks slowly to the whites-only water fountain and takes a drink herself. "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman" won nine Emmys, including one for Tyson. It was a performance that deeply inspired a young Viola Davis. She and her sisters watched the TV movie together in their family's rundown apartment in South Carolina. At an awards press conference in 2015, Davis said Tyson was a revelation.

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VIOLA DAVIS: She was the first actress that I saw when I was 6, 7 years old that - where I saw craft, who I saw the magic of transformation.

BLAIR: Viola Davis eventually got to share in that magic. In the TV series "How To Get Away With Murder," Tyson played Davis's mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER")

TYSON: (As Ophelia Harkness) Let me at your hair. Your kitchen is tight.

DAVIS: (As Annalise Keating) Just a little bit, Mama.

TYSON: (As Ophelia Harkness) Come on, now. Where's your comb?

BLAIR: Cicely Tyson used to tell a story that well into her 80s, she was still looking for one more great role to play. At age 88, she found it, playing Mrs. Carrie Watts in a Broadway revival of Horton Foote's "A Trip To Bountiful" (ph) with an all-Black cast. In this scene at the bus station, Tyson strikes up a conversation with another solo traveler.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL")

TYSON: (As Carrie Watts) Everything seemed to work out today. Why is it some days everything works out and some days nothing works out? I guess the good Lord is with me today. I wonder why the Lord isn't with us every day. It would be so nice if he were, no? Yeah.

BLAIR: Tyson would break into hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL")

TYSON: (As Carrie Watts, singing) Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.

BLAIR: Overcome with emotion, she would get up off the bench and start clapping. Sometimes, the audience would join in.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This is my story. This is my song, praising my savior all the day long.

TYSON: (As Carrie Watts) Oh, it's so tight (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: The late Cicely Tyson joyously leading a Broadway audience in a hymn in "A Trip To Bountiful." She was once asked, what was her secret for being so active into her 90s? Tyson said she took care of her body but also that she simply loved life. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.