Cicely Tyson: 10 of Her Most Memorable Performances

Cicely Tyson- Getty - H 2020
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Throughout her career, which spanned over 60 years, Cicely Tyson touched hearts in pivotal roles.

Cicely Tyson, who died Thursday at 96, had a long and successful acting career, earning 11 Emmy nods among many other awards and nominations. From her breakout role in Sounder to her guest spot on ABC's How To Get Away With Murder, Tyson always gave heart-wrenching performances that stick with audiences.

The New York native was first discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine. She quickly became a popular fashion model. Tyson began working on television in 1951, then taking roles on soap operas and films. Ten years later, she had her theater debut in Jean Genet's The Blacks. From there, she only soared higher and higher. She earned nominations for all top acting awards and forged important relationships along the way. At her TCM hand and footprint ceremony, director and friend Tyler Perry was there to celebrate with her.

Take a look at the roles that have earned Cicely Tyson some of the highest awards given out and cemented her place as a Hollywood legend.

  • 'Sounder' (1972)

    In 1972, Cicely Tyson starred in Sounder, the film many consider to be Tyson's big break. She played Rebecca Morgan, the matriarch of a family of black share croppers. When her husband is put in jail, it's up to her to take care of their son. For this role, Tyson was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best actress. 

    In an interview with Elle magazine, conducted by her longtime cast-mate and friend, Viola Davis, Tyson recalled making Sounder

    "Of course, Sounder surprised us all," she said to Davis over the phone. "I remember [director] Marty Ritt calling me and saying, 'Cis, this is supposed to be a children’s film. But if they’re not careful, they’re going to make a damn good film.' And he was absolutely right. That movie was, for me, the first acknowledgment that I could do something that would move people."

  • 'The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman' (1974)

    The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman earned Cicely Tyson her first Primetime Emmy. Her character, Jane Pittman, goes through life from her days as a young slave to the end of the Civil War. She won the outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie and actress of the year. She also earned a BAFTA nomination for best actress. 

    "I was scared to death—I knew there were some aspects of that woman’s life that I could probably handle, but there were others that I didn’t know," Tyson said in the Elle magazine interview. "So I called the producers, and I said, I want to visit an elders’ home to be among people who might have been peers of this woman. I spent a good deal of time talking to them, watching them, feeling them, hoping that I could capture their lives. I guess the rest is history."

  • 'Roots' (1977)

    In the limited series Roots, Tyson portrayed Binta, Kunta Kinte's mother. She was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie. 

  • 'King' (1979)

    Cicely Tyson navigated the Civil Rights movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife, Coretta Scott King in this miniseries that earned nine Emmy Awards, including a best lead actress in a miniseries nomination for Tyson.

  • 'The Marva Collins Story' (1981)

    As the star of The Marva Collins Story, Cicely Tyson played a real woman, Marva Collins. She was a Chicago-based teacher who started her own school, Westside Preparatory, among other accomplishments. Ultimately, Tyson was nominated for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or TV movie. 

  • 'Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All' (1994)

    This television miniseries was based on the 1989 novel by Allan Gurganus. It starred Diane Lane, Donald Sutherland, Cicely Tyson and Anne Bancroft. It follows the life of Bancroft’s character, Lucy Honicut Marsden, the young bride of a Civil War veteran. Tyson played Castalia, the Marsden family slave. The miniseries won several Emmy awards, including outstanding supporting actress to Cicely Tyson. 

    The actress also won the NAACP award for actress in a drama series and the SAG award for actress in a miniseries or TV movie. 

  • 'Sweet Justice' (1994-1995)

    This legal drama followed Tyson as Carrie Grace Battle, a no-nonsense lawyer who runs a progressive law firm in the south. Her co-star, Marisa Gilbert, played a new lawyer to the firm, whose dad happens to own the conservative firm in town. 

    Tyson earned an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actress in a drama series. 

  • 'The Help' (2011)

    Cicely Tyson's played Constantine Bates, main character Charlotte's (Emma Stone) childhood maid. The film also starred Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2012. The film itself received three other Oscar nominations: best picture, best actress for Viola Davis and best supporting actress for Jessica Chastain. Together, they won outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. 


  • 'The Trip to Bountiful" (2014)

    This play involves a woman who has to live with her apathetic son and daughter-in-law in Houston, Texas. Carrie Watts, Cicely Tyson’s character, dreams of returning to her home town of Bountiful. Eventually, she embarks by bus, meeting interesting people along the way. 

    Cicely Tyson took to the stage in 2013 to play Miss Carrie Watts. This was the first Broadway revival for the Horton Foote play. Cuba Gooding Jr. played Watts’ son, Ludie. For this role, Cicely Tyson won the Tony award for best actress in a play. In 2014, Tyson starred in and executive produced a TV film version of The Trip to Bountiful. As a result, she was nominated for the best TV movie award as a producer and best actress in a TV movie or miniseries. She also earned Critic's Choice, SAG and Satellite Awards.

    Tyson recalled transitioning the character from the theater to the stage to the Los Angeles Times

    "I actually was bowled over with that fact they were going to do a movie. I didn't think it was possible," she said. "I personally couldn't begin to fathom how I would take this character, who was massive for the theater, and bring it down to the small screen."

  • 'How to Get Away With Murder' (2015-2020)

    Tyson worked with her The Help castmate, Viola Davis, on Davis' ABC drama, How to Get Away With Murder for the first time, despite both being in the Oscar nominated film. She played Davis' character, Annalise Keating's mother, Ophelia Harkness. The two have a complicated relationship and both have fierce personalities. The performance led to Tyson's 12th and 13th Emmy nominations. Both times, it was for outstanding actress by a guest actress. 

    The show's creator, Peter Nowalk, told the Los Angeles Times "It was like they were in a mind meld, just as actors and as black women, who really understood Annalise."

    "From watching the show, Cicely could feel the pain and secrets that Annalise had experienced as a child," he continued. "They really brought so much of themselves to that scene. They bared their souls."