Cicely Tyson, Emmy-Winning Actress and Industry Trailblazer, Dead at 96 — HTGAWM's Viola Davis Shares Tribute

Cicely Tyson

Veteran actress Cicely Tyson, whose career in Hollywood spanned nearly seven decades, died Thursday. She was 96.

“I have managed Miss Tyson’s career for over 40 years, and each year was a privilege and blessing,” Tyson’s manager, Larry Thompson, said in a statement to our sister pub Variety. “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.” (A cause of death has not been revealed.)

On the small screen, Tyson made history in 1963 with her role as secretary Jane Foster in CBS’ East Side/West Side, making her the first Black actress to co-star in a TV drama. She went on to guest-star or recur in many series over the years — including Guiding Light, The Outer Limits, Touched by an Angel, House of Cards and Madam Secretary — and she co-starred as civil rights lawyer Carrie Grace Battle in the short-lived NBC drama Sweet Justice in 1994.

Most recently, Tyson recurred throughout How to Get Away With Murder’s six seasons as Ophelia Harkness, mother of Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating, a role that earned her four Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. She also scored Emmy nods for the miniseries Roots and King, among other projects, and she took home trophies in 1974 (for the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and 1994 (for the miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).

Tyson also had a substantial film career, most notably as Rebecca Morgan in the 1972 drama Sounder, for which she received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Her big-screen credits also included Fried Green Tomatoes, Because of Winn-Dixie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and The Help. She appeared in several stage productions, as well, nabbing a Tony Award in 2013 for the Broadway play The Trip to Bountiful.

The actress’ long list of accolades also includes an honorary Oscar, a Peabody Award, a Kennedy Center Honors award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Davis paid tribute to Tyson in the Instagram post below, remembering how her How to Get Away With Murder co-star “made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls.” HTGAWM EP Shonda Rhimes in turn heralded Tyson as “an extraordinary person. And this is an extraordinary loss. 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.”