The Woman Who Tamed Miles Davis And Hung Up On Obama: The Incredible Life Of Cicely Tyson!


Hollywood mourned the trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson following her death at the age of 96, with Barack Obama leading the tributes to a star who “left a mark on the world that few will ever match.” Tyson died peacefully on Thursday, Larry Thompson, her manager of over 40 years, said in a statement. No cause of death was given.

Tyson was known for playing strong African-American women over a glittering career spanning seven decades, credited with shattering stereotypes and paving a path for the generations who came after her. She won three Emmys, a SAG Award, a Tony and an honorary Academy Award, with acclaimed performances on the big and small screens, including in Sounder and The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman.

Her death triggered a wave of tributes from Hollywood and beyond. Mr Obama honoured civil rights activist Tyson with the highest civilian honour in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2016, and praised her on- and off-screen legacy.

He said: “In her extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it. She had a heart unlike any other – and for 96 years, she left a mark on the world that few will ever match.”

Michelle Obama shared a similarly glowing tribute and wrote on Instagram: “She was the personification of beauty, grace, wisdom, and strength, carrying forward a flame that not only guided her for 96 pathbreaking years but lit the way for so many of us. I’ll miss her dearly, but I smile knowing how many people she inspired, just like me, to walk a little taller, speak a little more freely, and live a little bit more like God intended.”

President Obama awarded Cicely Tyson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 – SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Born in Harlem, Tyson started her career in fashion after being spotted by a photographer for Ebony magazine. Her first film role came in 1956 B-movie Carib Gold and she followed it up with a groundbreaking stint on gritty TV drama East Side/West Side. The series aired in 1963 and marked the first time an African-American woman starred in a television drama.

In 1972 came the role that brought Tyson widespread fame and acclaim. She played Rebecca Morgan in Sounder, a film about black sharecroppers facing crisis during the Great Depression. Tyson was nominated for both the Bafta and Oscar for best actress.

She won two Emmys for starring as a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 TV film The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman, adding a third in 1994 for a supporting role in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Tyson was introduced to younger audiences in Civil Rights Movement-era drama The Help in 2011 and had starred in TV legal thriller series How To Get Away With Murder since 2014.

The actress had an eventful personal life too. She began dating Miles Davis in the 1960s, and appeared on the cover of his album Sorcerer. Davis told the press he intended to marry Tyson once his divorce was finalised – but then wed a singer instead. Davis and Tyson did rekindle their romance and finally married in 1981, in a ceremony at the home of Bill Cosby, but their tumultuous union ended in divorce in 1989. However, Davis did credit her for helping him overcome his cocaine addiction.

In her memoir, Just As I Am – published earlier this week – Tyson recalls her that Davis was wearing only a robe when she first met him, knocking on his door to ask for some sugar. She also recalled her godson Lenny Kravitz making so much noise cutting his new record in her neighbourhood that she called his mother to complain.

Not only that, but Tyson took on Elizabeth Taylor, suing her production company for lost earnings after they fired Tyson from the Broadway revival of The Corn Is Green. Tyson recalls encountering Taylor years later in a Beverly Hills restaurant, where the latter was dining with James Earl Jones. “We exchanged one of those fake double-cheek kisses, and she laughed as she said to James, ‘You know something? Cicely sued me,’” Tyson writes. “She then turned to me and smirked, ‘And how much money did you get?’ I raised my shoulders, thrust my nose heavenward, and announced loudly enough for the room to hear, ‘I was awarded more than a half-million dollars.’”


Even President Obama had a run-in with Tyson – albeit accidental. When Obama’s aide called her to let her know she was being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tyson thought she was being pranked and hung up on them. Fortunately, she realised her mistake and her manager was able to get the White House back on the phone.

Following Tyson’s passing, prominent black women in the entertainment industry have spoken about her enduring impact in Hollywood. Oprah Winfrey said: “Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people. The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised. Her life so fully lived is a testimony to Greatness.”

Viola Davis starred alongside Tyson in 2011 period drama The Help. Oscar-winner Davis said she was “devastated” by her death. “My heart is just broken,” she said alongside a picture of her hugging Tyson. “I loved you so much!! You were everything to me! You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls.

“You gave me permission to dream….because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself. I’m not ready for you to be my angel yet. But…I also understand that it’s only when the last person who has a memory of you dies, that you’ll truly be dead. In that case, you will be immortal. Thank you for shifting my life. Thank you for the long talks. Thank you for loving me. Rest well.”

Zendaya, one of the brightest young actresses in Hollywood, said few others have matched Tyson. The 24-year-old star of Euphoria tweeted: “This one hurts, today we honour and celebrate the life of one of the greatest to ever do it. Thank you Cicely Tyson. Rest in great power.”

TV producer Shonda Rhimes said Tyson was an “extraordinary” person. “And this is an extraordinary loss,” she added. “She had so much to teach. And I still have so much to learn. I am grateful for every moment. Her power and grace will be with us forever.”

Whoopi Goldberg said Tyson has been “escorted home by angels”. She said in a statement: “She was a tower of power, a pillar of strength, CLEAR about who she was, and how she was to be treated… and that never wavered. She was in her 90s and just finished her autobiography. She said what she wanted to say… dropped the mic… and was escorted home by angels. My deepest condolences to Ms Tyson’s entire family, and to everyone who was lucky enough to know her. Rest in peace… even though we all know there are enough scripts up there to keep you busy.”

Rihanna described Tyson as “a true legend” while film producer Tyler Perry said she was “always so regal, always so classy, always a lady, always a queen”. Bernice King is the daughter of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King, whom Tyson played in a TV drama. In her tribute, she said: “I will cherish you always, Lady Cicely. Thank you so much. Salute.”

Speaking to the New York Times earlier this month, Tyson said “I’m not scared of death. I don’t know what it is. How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about? It’s something a lot of people are scared of. They just think they know death because other people say it is something to be scared of, but they don’t know that it is a frightening thing.”