• February 9, 2023

Cicely Tyson Reflects On Her Long Career : NPR

Cicely Tyson says her mother didn’t want her to be an actress. “But in my gut, I knew there was something I was brought here for,” says Tyson. Cooper Neill / Getty Images for MegaFest 2017 Hide caption

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Cooper Neill / Getty Images for MegaFest 2017

Cicely Tyson says her mother didn’t want her to be an actress. “But in my gut, I knew there was something I was brought here for,” says Tyson.

Cooper Neill / Getty Images for MegaFest 2017

During a career spanning more than six decades, Cicely Tyson has brought iconic roles to life in theater, film and television – from Sounder to the autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to Roots and How to Get Away with Murder. They have offered previously unseen images of the momentum and humanity of black life.

And now, in a new memoir, Just as I Am, she’s finally making her unlikely journey, from the Red Cross writing pool to the award-winning actor and icon of style.

In an NPR interview, 96-year-old Tyson says she got into acting in order to “speak through other people” after being naturally drawn to watching other people as a shy child.

As her career began, some of the acting roles she accepted “hurt me deeply because it was just the color of my skin and my gender,” she says. “And it was very difficult for me to accept that I was treated differently because of it … It was extremely painful at times and affected my desire to appear as a person.”

Of her late husband, jazz legend Miles Davis, she says, “I wish people knew the Miles Davis I knew. … Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was also brilliantly sensitive. And this is Miles Davis The people … I don’t know he was trying to protect. “

Below are the highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Highlights of the interview

If someone wrote the story of your life as a novel, people probably wouldn’t believe it. You started modeling at the age of 30 when most models hang up their stilettos. You got your first leading role when you were almost 50. I mean crazy.

[Laughs] That’s life, at least mine. Well, it’s remarkable to me that I got where I am today because I wasn’t expecting it. I made the decision based on things that happened to me along the way and I just kept going. You know, no matter what happened in my life, it didn’t stop me from reaching the goal that I set myself.


Cicely Tyson: The way I am

Cicely Tyson: The way I am

You write very movingly about your parents even though you are very honest about the difficulties they had in their relationship and frankly some of the difficulties you had with them. Your memory seems so sharp – I remember writing about the delicious potatoes your mom would make for you at lunch. And it’s just amazing to me that you can remember all of these details.

It’s incredible. But they influenced my life back then so much. You influenced me so much that I couldn’t forget these memories. And my sister and I sometimes sit down and salt over her [the potatoes].

And you said your mac and cheese weren’t the same.

Nobody. Nobody. And she made a chicken soup that would make you lick the hair out of your nostrils. [Laughs]

You write about how you got into acting after an unlikely modeling career – you were literally in the Red Cross writing pool and then someone spotted you and said you should be a model.

Yes, I was walking down Fifth Avenue. Actually, I’d be spending my lunch break at Lord & Taylor’s. That was my favorite business. And I went there every time I finished my lunch and read what they had. And someone patted me on the shoulder and asked about my agency. And I asked, “Which agency?” They said, “Are you not a model?” I said no. And they said, “Well, you should be.” And I said, “Well how do you do that?” They said, “Well, you enroll in a modeling school and then get your certificate if you’re good enough.” And then I started distributing my photos among the agencies. And then I got calls and that’s how it started.

Cicely Tyson reacts to their introduction while conductor Seiji Ozawa, a fellow recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, applauds during a reception at the White House on December 6, 2015. Chris Kleponis / AFP via Getty Images are hiding subtitles

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Chris Kleponis / AFP via Getty Images

Cicely Tyson reacts to their introduction while conductor Seiji Ozawa, a fellow recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, applauds during a reception at the White House on December 6, 2015.

Chris Kleponis / AFP via Getty Images

When did you decide that acting was your calling? What made you say, “I have to do this”?

Well, it happened because I learned that I can speak through other people. I was a very shy kid. I was an observer. I would sit and watch and listen and watch people act to understand what they were. I wanted to know what made them say and do the things that they did. I sucked my fingers for 12 years. I never spoke … but I was a great observer.

I remember you wrote about the effect a role likes Sounder had on people. And I think a lot of people may know the story that Paul Winfield played you as Nathan, and you played Rebecca. And it’s the story of a loving black couple who are basically just trying to live against this obstacle. And what amazed me was that you said some of the reactions people got – for example, TV writers who said they didn’t notice black kids calling their parents dad and mom.

Can you imagine that? I did a doctorate for sounders. And after the film was finished, this journalist said he discovered a bit of bigotry in himself. But he realized that this black boy … [actor] Kevin Hooks calls his father Daddy. And when I asked why, he said, “That’s what my son calls me.” And I’m telling you I was so stunned. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath and ask if this man thought we were human. You know why my son can’t call his black father Daddy what his sons called him? At that time, I decided that I couldn’t afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were certain issues that I needed to address and I would use my career as a platform.

And we can’t let you go without talking about Miles Davis.

[Laughs] You can because he was part of my life.

What do you think you learned from it? I mean, you are writing about the fact that you were all like the “it” couple at the time. He is a jazz legend. You are a legend in your field. And yet, as we all know, he had some problems. He had a serious drug problem and other problems, demons, that he was dealing with. What do you think you learned from this relationship?

I wish people knew the Miles Davis I knew. Really. Because you can go into a bookstore and see tons of books about Miles Davis. And few people who wrote these books know him. The Miles Davis I know and know is not the Miles Davis you will read about in these books. I was lucky enough to be close enough to him that he showed himself to me the first time we met. It’s the Miles Davis who kept me with them for so long. Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And that’s the Miles Davis that people … don’t know he’s been trying to protect.

Do you have any advice for younger artists or for those just starting their careers after doing so much and seeing so much and going through so much? Do you have any advice you would share?

Well, I don’t feel like I’m someone who gives advice other than saying my mom didn’t want me to be an actress and she said I couldn’t live in her house and do that. But in my gut I knew there was something I was brought here to do. And she hasn’t spoken to me in a couple of years.

And even though I lived long enough and she lived long enough to see that I wasn’t living in a cave of injustice and that I would not forget the lesson she gave me in my early years. And finally she came over and I could hear her say, “I’m so proud of you” and see that I wouldn’t forget my beginnings.

And so your advice would be what? Just stick with it?

Just stick with it. Just stick with it. There is always a reason why you should keep walking in the direction you choose.

Kira Wakeam and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the audio version of this story. Avie Schneider produced for the web.

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