Three days before Alex Haley died in 1992, the celebrated author of Roots spoke with actress Cicely Tyson’s manager. “Tell Cicely that I love her,” Tyson recalls Haley saying, “and that I have something for her.” Haley’s death meant his gift remained a mystery until last year, when Tyson received the script for Mama Flora’s Family, a two-part TV miniseries (CBS, Nov. 8 and 10, 9 p.m. ET) based on Haley’s just-released final book, completed after his death by writer David Stevens. Says Tyson of the script: “I read it and thought, ‘This is what Alex had in mind.’ It was about his mother.” She happily agreed to play the lead role of Mama Flora.
Working again with Haley’s words was a joy for Tyson, 73, who stayed in touch with the author after her starring role as Binta, mother of slave Kunta Kinte, in the 1977 Roots miniseries. “Giving birth to Kunta Kinte was a forceful point in my career,” says the Emmy Award-winning Tyson. More a Roots spin-off than sequel, Mama Flora’s Family follows Kinte’s mother’s side of the family.
Tyson is vocal about civil rights and racial ignorance (“We have to attempt to eradicate it”) and the plight of African-American actresses (“That’s two strikes against us”). But she won’t discuss her private life, except for her memory of being serenaded by her late husband, jazz genius Miles Davis, during their seven-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1988, three years before his death. “I was always humming [Cyndi Lauper’s hit] Time After Time,” recalls Tyson. “One day he said, ‘Come here, sit down,’ and picked up a trumpet and started playing it. Needless to say, I wept. Every time I hear it, I weep.”