(NEXSTAR) – Groundbreaking actress Cicely Tyson has died at 96, her manager confirmed to Nexstar.
A cause of death was not released.
“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon,” her manager said in a statement. “At this time, please allow the family their privacy.”
Tyson was known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Black characters in a slew of television, theatre and movie performances. She won three Emmys, a Tony award and received an Academy Honorary Award in 2018.
A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles.
Tyson’s memoir, “Just As I Am,” was published this week.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she told The Associated Press in 2013.
She was one of the recipients for the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. At that ceremony, President Barack Obama said: “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”
“Sounder,” based on the William H. Hunter novel, was the film that confirmed her stardom in 1972. Tyson was cast as the Depression-era loving wife of a sharecropper (Paul Winfield) who is confined in jail for stealing a piece of meat for his family. She is forced to care for their children and attend to the crops.
The New York Times reviewer wrote: “She passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women.” Tyson went on to earn an Academy Award nomination as best actress of 1972.
In an interview on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, she recalled that she had been asked to test for a smaller role in the film and said she wanted to play the mother, Rebecca. She was told, “You’re too young, you’re too pretty, you’re too sexy, you’re too this, you’re too that, and I said, ‘I am an actress.’”
In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won the Tony for best leading actress in a play for the revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” It was the actress’ first time back on Broadway in three decades and she refused to turn meekly away when the teleprompter said to finish her acceptance speech.
“‘Please wrap it up,’ it says. Well, that’s exactly what you did with me: You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years,” she told the crowd.
She told The AP afterward she had prepared no speech — “I think it’s presumptuous” — and that “I burned up half my time wondering what I was going to say.” She reprised her role in a Lifetime Television movie, which was screened at the White House.
In the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Tyson is seen aging from a young woman in slavery to a 110-year-old who campaigned for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In the touching climax, she laboriously walks up to a “whites only” water fountain and takes a drink as white officers look on.
“It’s important that they see and hear history from Miss Jane’s point of view,” Tyson told The New York Times. “And I think they will be more ready to accept it from her than from someone younger”
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael offered her praise: “She’s an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we’ve got.”
At the Emmy Awards, “Pittman” won multiple awards, including two honors for Tyson, best lead actress in a drama and best actress in a special.
“People ask me what I prefer doing — film, stage, television? I say, ‘I would have done “Jane Pittman” is the basement or in a storefront.’ It’s the role that determines where I go,” she told the AP.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.