Cicely Tyson, the trailblazing Hollywood icon whose nearly 70-year career spanned projects including “Sounder,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and the Tony-winning “The Trip to Bountiful,” died on Thursday at the age of 96.
In 2019, TheWrap interviewed Tyson about her work on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” (for which she received five Emmy nominations) and the legendary career that brought her to that point.
During the conversation, Tyson reflected on the serendipitous moment when her impressive “sashay” took her from model to lead actress overnight. She also recalled the moment that convinced her to use her platform as a Black woman in Hollywood to advocate for social change — a decision that nearly derailed her career.
Read the full interview with Cicely Tyson below.
If you’re nominated again, this would be your fourth nomination for “How to Get Away With Murder” at the Emmys. And last year you received that honorary Oscar. At this point, you’ve had such an illustrious career, what do those kinds of accolades mean to you?
Well, that’s an interesting question. Because throughout my career, I have been made acutely aware, particularly by one incident which took place in Philadelphia. I was at a press conference and screening for “Sounder.” And during that time, one of the reporters stood up and said, “I have to say this,” — and I’m not sure how I feel about it, but he said, “I discovered a bit of prejudice in myself, while viewing the movie.” I questioned why. And he said, “Well, it was difficult for me to accept the fact that this young boy, who was the elder of your sons, referred to his father as ‘Daddy.’” Even today, strange sensations go up and down my shoulder. I didn’t quite know whether– or how to accept what he was saying. But I knew exactly what he was saying. And so when I was able to pull myself together, I said, “Do you have any children?” He said, “Yes. In fact, I have two sons, actually.” I asked him, “What do they call you?” He said, “Daddy.” Well, that shocked me, because what he could not come to grips with, is the fact that this little Black boy was calling his Black father “Daddy” as his children were calling him. Well, that was enough for me. It was at that moment that I realized that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress, that there were a number of issues that I needed to address. So I made the decision to use my career as my platform.
Do you feel like now you have more freedom with the kinds of roles you choose, where you can just go with what speaks to you as an actress? Do you feel like after this long career, you’ve opened up that door for yourself?
Well, I think I’ve said this for a number of directors and writers, actually: “You know what? I just would like to have fun. I want to I want to do a role that’s funny. I want to do a foreign role. I just want to be an actress.” Because, you know, when I made that decision, there was no guarantee for me that it would work. As difficult as it was — because I went for years without working because I made this choice. I spent those years doing a tour of schools and organizations, speaking to children, getting their opinion, letting them teach me. Hopefully, I was teaching them something and it was somewhat of an exchange. But there was no guarantee that what I was doing was going to work. And ultimately, what happened is that no matter how difficult it was, that I was determined to stay on track. And, ultimately, I made the right choice. Because in the end it was confirmed by all the accolades.
What is it about acting like as an art form that you love? What is it that made you want to be an actress in the first place?
Well, that’s a funny story. Because how I came to be an actress — I never even thought of it. We were not, as children, permitted to go to the movies. So I was not inspired by some star on screen. It’s just that I was asked once when I was coming out of a magazine office. There was a woman sitting in the in the other office, waiting to have a meeting with the director of the magazine. And when she went in for her interview, she said, “Who was that young lady that just sashayed out of here?” The magazine was Our World magazine, and the editor was Mildred Smith. She said, “Oh, that’s Cicely Tyson, she’s a model.”
So this woman, whose name was Evelyn Davis, an actress, she had been up for a role in an independent movie. She told Mildred Smith that I was the type of the young lady they were looking for, to play the lead. I had gone back to my day job, and the phone rang. I was told this little story by Miss Smith, and I said to her, “I don’t know anything about acting” and I said thank you very much and hung up the phone. [Laughs.] But she was persistent. She called me back about four times and I said to her, “You’re gonna make me lose my job. Please don’t call me anymore.” So she said, “Do me a favor, please. I want you to go and just visit this man, the producer-director. Just go and see him.” I said okay and she gave me the address.
It turned out to be his office in Carnegie Hall. I went over, and I met the gentleman, and he asked me all sorts of questions. And then he said, “I’m getting ready to produce this movie and has a wonderful role for a young woman who looks just like you. Are you interested in acting?” I didn’t know anything acting. So he gave me the script — I didn’t know what it was. But I said, yes, I would read it. And he said, “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks, and you tell me what you think.” And so he did, and when I went in, he had the male that he was considering to be the lead opposite me. Did you hear that? I was going to be the lead in my first movie. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you, when you look back at these things, it’s very amusing, but it wasn’t at the time. I was nervous as I can be.
Anyway, he read me with this young man whose name was, I think, was Hal DeWindt. And then he said to me, “Do you want to be an actress?” And I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “You’ll learn on the way.” So I tried it. And what made me be comfortable with the process, I realized, was the fact that while I was reading with this young man, I had lost my shyness. I was able to be this other person, and be very comfortable in the process. You know, I can say whatever was given to me by the writer and not feel guilty or shy about it. Or mean or nasty about it. Because I was just this other person. It was not me. And I was hooked.
Has that had an effect on you personally? Do you feel like you’ve been able to learn from your characters?
Oh my god, have I. I hope that I have become a much better human being as a result of all the exchanges that I have had with these incredible women who have lived through everything. That’s what I enjoy. Because I do a tremendous amount of research, and I’ve learned so much about these women and their lives, and how they survive.