The entertainment industry lost one of its most important and influential treasures when actress Cicely Tyson passed away Thursday night at 96 years old.
I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Tyson a little more than a year ago during the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour. I asked her whether she felt the television industry had changed for the better or worse since the 1960s and 1970s, when she fought to help set a standard for strong, dignified and positive on-screen roles for Black actors and actresses.
Ms. Tyson thought about it for a second, then said very succinctly: “I don’t know if I would put it in the category of better or worse. I have never known a day in my life when I could just sit around and watch a network that just aired Black culture, and it was quite an experience, I would dare say. I am so proud and pleased that I lived to see the day when we just didn’t have to look at Amos ’n’ Andy. We have some variety — it runs the gamut finally of what the industry is supposed to be about.”
The same TV industry that Tyson lauded for its evolution took time to celebrate Tyson’s remarkable seven-decade entertainment career that garnered her 16 Emmy nominations — including a 2020 nod for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Ophelia Harkness in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder — and three Emmy wins.
Oprah Winfrey, whose OWN Network aired the drama series Cherish the Day, Tyson’s last starring role in a television series, recalled Tyson’s magnificence both as an actress and as a person.
“Of all the times and experiences we shared together, this was one of my favorites: The weekend of the Legends Ball in 2005,” Winfrey said in a statement. “The idea for the ball originated because I wanted to celebrate her, and other remarkable Black women who carved a path and built a bridge for me and generations to follow. What a joy to honor her and feel her receive it! I loved her hat so much, she sent it to me afterwards. Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity in Black people. The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised. Her life so fully lived is a testimony to greatness.”
OWN this Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 30-31) will present a special re-airing of 2014's Oprah’s Master Class: Cicely Tyson in memory of the actress.
“Ms. Tyson was a rare talent both on and off the screen, one that we at OWN were blessed and honored to work with and be inspired by,” said OWN president Tina Perry. “We are so grateful for the gifts she gave us with her art, her activism, and her passionate love of life. May she rise in power.”
Turner Classic Movies said Friday it will air on Jan. 31 two of Tyson's memorable films — Sounder and A Man Called Adam — as part of its “TCM Remembers Cicely Tyson” celebration.
Other networks and celebrities took to social media to celebrate Tyson’s life and career.
pic.twitter.com/vOD6Uq2Zp7January 29, 2021
Your hugs I’ll remember. How your petite arms wrapped around me like mighty branches of a sunlit tree, strong and warm. Your love I’ll remember. You loved me for some reason and told me often. Thank you, Your Majesty. And bless you as you journey ahead. Until we meet again... pic.twitter.com/Z6f3dp7AA1January 29, 2021
I'm devastated. My heart is just broken. 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... https://t.co/7V7AFZtFLa pic.twitter.com/l2TLfM4weXJanuary 29, 2021
"No one is going to bother to put you down, if you are not a threat to them." Wise words from the legend herself. We will never forget Cicely Tyson. ✨ #BETRemembers pic.twitter.com/K6drPGgRFKJanuary 29, 2021
To a legend, an icon, a hero, a Queen, Thank you. https://t.co/FPiiSHW3o1January 29, 2021
This one hurts, today we honor and celebrate the life of one of the greatest to ever do it. Thank you Cicely Tyson. Rest in great power. pic.twitter.com/vwchWT5512January 29, 2021
So saddened by the loss of Cicely Tyson....A gentle soul, immensely talented and so thoroughly dignified. She brought so much life to the characters she played, and their voices...her voice...will always be with us.January 29, 2021
Thank you #CicelyTyson 👑🙏🏿 Her legacy will forever be remembered as she blessed multiple generations with her artistry & paved the way for many Black actresses in the entertainment industry.Read more 👇🏿https://t.co/ZIaNwNOaU4 pic.twitter.com/Dt2zhzB6uiJanuary 29, 2021
Cicely Tyson's legacy will truly live on forever, and through so many Black women who are able to do it because she did it. pic.twitter.com/7PExhGJ0jpJanuary 29, 2021
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.