One afternoon in the mid 1950s when she was an 18-year-old secretary in New York, Cicely Tyson got up from her typewriter and “announced to a vast roomful of my coworkers: ‘I’m just sure God didn’t put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter the rest of my life.’ I sat down to finish whatever I was doing and realized mine was the only typewriter going—total silence. I got up and sashayed out, past an old woman who was about to retire and get nothing but a watch for her trouble. Then I had to decide what to do instead.”
Acting was hardly an obvious alternative for last year’s Oscar nominee for Sounder and the Emmy winner honored this week for her CBS special The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, since at that point Cicely had never been to a play or a movie. Her rigidly religious mother forbade it when she was growing up in Manhattan. Entertainment for Cicely was singing in church “where we seemed to spend all our free time.” But the recently retired secretary modeled some new hair styles at the request of her hairdresser and quickly caught on in that business.
She hit the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and that led to her being signed in 1956 for an independent movie about discrimination between dark-skinned and light-skinned blacks. The producer never got his financing and the project was scrapped, but Cicely says, “I was bitten by the bug, even though I still didn’t know what acting was.” Her mother was convinced that Cicely was “headed down a road of sin,” and asked her to leave their apartment. The two women didn’t see each other for two years.
Cicely began studying with prominent drama coach Paul Mann. In 1959 she landed a TV role on the Sunday morning culture series Camera Three, and took the then daring step of having her hair cut into television’s first Afro-natural since she was playing an African woman. She had waited until the last moment since the show was live and they couldn’t fire her.
Cicely’s long string of roles have always been meticulously chosen. The first off-Broadway was Jean Genet’s The Blacks, the production she terms “the beginning of serious black theater in this country.” She left the show five or six times to do other plays but kept returning. (“Everybody did,” she notes, “it was home.”) During Blacks, producer David Susskind and star George C. Scott saw her and signed her to play a secretary in CBS’s East Side, West Side, depicting the seamier side of New York. As Cicely says, “For the first time a black person of either sex was given a regular TV role of some dignity.” She went back to the Afro and is credited with launching the national trend.
Her early film roles (The Comedians, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter) earned her critical attention and a reputation for lofty seriousness about what she regarded as acceptable parts. “I have to play a role that has some kind of substance, that represents a real person,” she observes. “I cannot deal with superficiality or the vacuous cardboards that are supposed to be the characters in most movies today—particularly women. I do not understand why, but I know that Claudette Colbert, Ann Sheridan and Barbara Stanwyck always had a lot of good roles to choose from. And of course I have no illusions about how much more difficult it is for a black woman to become a star.”
Cicely first found box-office meaning in her movie career with Sounder, in which she played Rebecca, the wife of a southern sharecropper. Director Martin Ritt had told her she was “too young, too pretty and too sexy” for the part and tried to interest her in the lesser one of the schoolteacher. “I just waited for two months while they tested everybody else they could find; I never felt for one moment that the part wasn’t mine.” Her portrayal was successful, Cicely feels, because “that woman was not foreign to me at all, despite her southern rural background and my urban one. She reminded me of so many women, and I think everybody who saw the picture identified her with someone they knew.” Even Cicely’s mother went to see Sounder and came out amazed by how much Rebecca reminded her of her own mother in Nevis, British West Indies.
Jane Pittman, a two-hour TV chronicle of the black experience in America told through the story of an ex-slave, was the challenge of any actress’s career. With an age range from 20 to 110, Jane was the choice role in Cicely’s mind even before Sounder. “I’d seen the book while browsing in a bookstore, and I couldn’t put it down.” When she got the role, Cicely recalls being “paralyzed for four days thinking about the enormity of the part and its demands. Finally I decided I’d better get up and do something.” She tackled it in her habitual way: “I learn the role and become the woman. I can’t study lines; the actual dialogue is the last thing I get.”
For all the sometimes humorless solemnity to her discussion of her work, there is also a gamin quality to Cicely. She is still svelte as a mannequin. Her eyes, hands and speech are highly animated, but in both private conversation and public speeches Cicely is given to discomfiting pauses while she ponders the precise way to express her thoughts. She smiles and laughs a lot, but rarely about her career, which has always taken precedence over her private life. She works at fuzzing up the details of that private life.
More than all the other actresses who have tried, Tyson keeps her age, which could be close to 40, a secret. When pressed, she quips, “I could be anywhere from 19 to 110.” She refuses to say whether she has ever been married, and is impatient with the notion that society expects it. “If you have a relationship and the woman becomes pregnant I’m not so sure even that is grounds for marriage,” she observes. “I don’t think a stigma should be placed on it. These laws force people to be dishonest and deceptive.” She acknowledges stories have circulated for years that she has a son and daughter but will neither confirm nor deny the reports. “When the time comes to announce anything about that, I will be the one to have the say myself,” she carefully explains. Cicely spent three-and-a-half years with trumpeter Miles Davis—a relationship she describes as “fantastic”—and even tried vainly to give up her career for him. Her romance for the past two-and-a-half years has been her Sounder costar Paul Winfield. He recently called her in Los Angeles from New York and said, “I think I’ve given you enough time to get that career going, let’s get married.” “Not yet,” was Tyson’s simple but firm reply.
Almost any other star who had had two roles of the magnitude of Rebecca and Jane would quickly have splurged in a big house in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills, a Mercedes at least, and a lavish wardrobe. Yet Cicely still sleeps on a daybed in the den-guestroom of the Los Angeles home of her agent, Bill Haber, and his wife (although she keeps her own seldom-used apartment in New York). “Saying that Cicely lives in my home is like saying my wife and children live there. It’s their home, it’s her home, she’s family,” says Haber. For Cicely the arrangement keeps the overhead down and spares her having to accept unpalatable parts.
She wakes up around 6 a.m. and jogs three miles. She drives a two-year-old Pinto wagon that 20th Century Fox lent her during Sounder and this month finally gave her to keep. In the back of it she stashes a bicycle that she rides whenever she comes upon a likely spot. As for clothes, the child who used to window-shop for hours (whenever she could sneak away from her mother’s protective eye) stretches her eye-catching but casual wardrobe by occasionally sewing her own. “I did buy myself a fur coat,” she says, “but it was stolen on Christmas Eve—before I could insure it, so I don’t think God means for me to have a coat. How many cars can you drive at once? I would like a house someday so my mother and family could come out and stay with me. But how much can one acquire in someone else’s home?”
Her indulgences are simple, like sitting in a bubble bath for an hour, with the phone off the hook. Though somewhat aloof from the Hollywood community, she is always in demand at show business public functions—she was a presenter at the Oscars, a hostess for the Tonys and the darling of the Cannes Film Festival, where Jane Pittman was a smash success but was disallowed as an official entry because it was made for television. She goes to movies alone in the daytime because now that she’s recognized “it gets to be a big thing if I go at night.” She loves the adulation and requests for autographs, however, “because it means I’ve done something that makes someone happy.”
Filling the long wait between acceptable film scripts is no problem since Cicely has been touring campuses, where she gives poetic and dramatic readings and takes questions from the floor on her life and profession. She routinely gets standing ovations (“If I were a few shades lighter I’d turn as red as a beet”)—even at the University of Mississippi. “How does it feel to be at ole Miss?” a white girl asked her. “In light of its history, I’m absolutely thrilled,” answered Cicely, before she launched into the scene about desegregation in the South from In White America. Last month she became the first actor ever to be honored with a “day” at the Harvard University Faculty Club, with the encomium “The missing pages in American history are rapidly being replaced and rewritten by your actions.” Said Cicely, in acceptance, “Ma, I wish you could see me at Harvard.”
Without embracing any one formal religion, Cicely still considers herself “a spiritual being” who meditates 20 minutes twice daily and believes “my life has been divinely guided—I didn’t choose to go into this business.” She’s even grateful for the smothering brand of Episcopalianism her mother enforced. “My brother and sister and I all felt caged—my mother even used to put a dress on my brother to keep him from going out to play, but he’d play baseball in the street in his dress. My fantasy was always that I was going to live in a better world that my mother probably wasn’t ever aware of, but so many of the kids I grew up with are dead from drugs, or alcohol or whatever. And I think, ‘There but for the grace of God…’ So in a way I’m grateful for the way I grew up.”
She would like her next project to be theater. Meanwhile she refuses to do black exploitation film roles of the Shaft and Superfly variety. “The lesser of two evils for me is to wait,” she says, “rather than do something that isn’t right. Producers know how I feel, and they’re very cautious about sending me things, although I read everything I get. They either make my skin tingle or my stomach churn. I’m really tired of the assumption”—and her voice takes on a bitterly authentic accent—”that niggers don’t like nothin’ but sex and violence.” But even as she worries about not having money, she stands firm. “I used to have periods of anxiety about not working but I don’t worry about it anymore. We’re here for a limited amount of time and it’s very important to me that whatever I leave behind has some positive effect. If I do not work again, I will leave this life very happy to have done those two pieces, Sounder and Jane Pittman.”