The acting legend’s career, now in its seventh decade, is notable not only for its longevity but Tyson’s presence as a black woman, beginning at a time when such representation was even rarer than it is today. Tyson became known for only taking roles that portrayed female strength, as she did in her Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated role in 1972’s Sounder (she won honors from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics for the performance). Her many feature credits also include The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Fried Green Tomatoes, Because of Winn-Dixie, Hoodlum, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married Too?, The Help and Alex Cross.
Tyson won the Emmy for best lead actress in a drama as well as a special Actress of the Year Emmy for CBS’ 1974 telepic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. A third Emmy came two decades later for her turn in CBS’ 1994 movie Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She also received accolades and critical recognition for Roots, King, Sweet Justice, The Marva Collins Story and A Lesson Before Dying.
Tyson made her stage debut in 1957’s Dark of the Moon. After appearing in various Broadway productions throughout the 1960s, she returned for the 1983 revival of the play The Corn Is Green and then again 30 years later for the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful, for which she swept the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for lead actress in a play.
Most recently, the actress appeared in the 2015-16 Broadway revival of the play The Gin Game, Richard Linklater’s 2017 Amazon movie Last Flag Flying and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder as the mother of Viola Davis’ protagonist. The latter recurring role has earned her three Emmy nominations thus far.
Now 94, Tyson received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, the latest in a lifetime’s worth of accolades that include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the NAACP’s Spingarn Award (its highest honor), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and seemingly countless NAACP Image Awards and honorary doctorates.