Cicely Tyson made history in 2018 as the first Black woman to win an honorary Oscar

By Jessica Fecteau and Alexia Fernández
Updated January 29, 2021 11:50 AM

Cicely Tyson, the legendary Tony Award and Emmy-winning actress, has died. She was 96.

"I have managed Miss Tyson's career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing," her manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement Thursday. "Cicely thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree."

With a career spanning more than 60 years, Tyson never retired from the entertainment industry and was most famously known for her roles playing resilient, uplifting Black women.

"It's very exciting to know that you are, hopefully, making a roadway for someone else to follow," she told PEOPLE earlier this month in an interview about her groundbreaking life and career that appears in this week's issue.

Tyson starred in decades of film and television including the notable 1972 drama Sounder, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which earned her two Emmy awards, as well as Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. In 2018, she became the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar. Two years later, she was selected for the Peabody Career Achievement Award for her work on the stage, in film and on television.

She also scored Emmy nods for the miniseries Roots and King.

Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Not only did the New York-born actress appear on screen, she also starred on Broadway, including in The Trip to Bountiful, which earned her the 2013 Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play, and her latest stage appearance in The Gin Game.

She continued to play strong women in 2011's The Help, the TV series How to Get Away with Murder opposite Viola Davis, House of Cards, and in several Tyler Perry movies including Madea's Family Reunion and Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Credit: Walter McBride/WireImage

Tyson said she made specific choices throughout her career in order to address social issues important to her like race and gender.

“I realized very early on when I was asked certain questions or treated in a certain way that I needed to use my career to address those issues,” Tyson told PEOPLE at the "I Have a Dream" Foundation’s Spirit of the Dream Annual Spring Gala in June 2016.

The 1977 Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee received the Eugene M. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award for her successful acting career and the Cicely Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts.

Credit: Everett Collection

“I used my career as my platform in an effort to address these issues, and every now and then when I receive an achievement award I realize that I did make the right choices,” Tyson told PEOPLE. “The sacrifices that I made as a result were worth it.”

In 1983, Tyson told The New York Times about how she chose her roles.

“Unless a piece really said something, I had no interest in it. I have got to know that I have served some purpose here,” she said.

Tyson, who was the first Black actress to win a lead actress Emmy Award, was admired throughout her career, especially for the deep feeling she brought to each of her characters.

Credit: Nicole Wilder/ABC via Getty Images

“I look at every role as a person that I’m meeting for the first time, and that allows me — because of the curiosity that I’ve always had since I was a child, and thank God I still have it — to delve into the personality, to find out who they really are,” Tyson told the Associated Press in May 2015.  “And once I can do that, it gives me some assurance that I can honestly project the character of the person.”

In June 2020, Tyson was selected for the Peabody Career Achievement Award with Oprah Winfrey, Davis and others honoring her work.

“Cicely Tyson, throughout your incomparable career, you’ve chosen to bring to life women of hope, determination, grit and grace because that is who you are,” Winfrey said in a video tribute at the time. “Your integrity is impeccable.”

“So I thank you for not just paving the way for me and every other Black woman who dared to have a career in entertainment, but being the way,” Winfrey added.

Credit: Harpo Inc.

Tyson was formerly married to jazz legend Miles Davis for seven years from 1981 to 1988 and has one daughter from a brief early marriage.