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'Just As I Am': Cicely Tyson Reflects On Her Long Career

Cicely Tyson says her mother did not want her to be an actress. "But in my gut, I knew there was something there that I was put here to do," Tyson says.
Cicely Tyson says her mother did not want her to be an actress. "But in my gut, I knew there was something there that I was put here to do," Tyson says.

During a career spanning more than six decades, Cicely Tyson has brought to life iconic roles in theater, film and television — from Sounder to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to Roots to How to Get Away with Murder. They've offered previously unseen images of the sweep and humanity of Black life.

And now, in a new memoir, Just as I Am, she finally sets forth her improbable journey, from the typing pool at the Red Cross to award-winning actor and icon of style.

In an NPR interview, Tyson, 96, says she came to acting so that she "could speak through other people," after being naturally drawn to observing other people as a shy child.

As her career took off, several of the acting roles that she accepted "hurt me deeply because it happened simply because of the color of my skin and my sex," she says. "And it was very difficult for me to accept that I was being treated differently because of that. ... It was sometimes extremely painful and interfered with my desires to perform as a human being."

Of her late husband, jazz legend Miles Davis, she says: "I wish people knew the Miles Davis that I knew. ... Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And that is the Miles Davis that people ... don't know that he was trying to protect."

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


Interview Highlights

If someone were to write the story of your life as a novel, I don't think people would believe it. You started modeling at the age of 30, when most models are hanging up their stilettos. You got your first starring role when you were nearly 50. I mean, crazy.

[Laughs] That's life, at least mine. Well, it's remarkable to me that I have arrived at where I am today because I had not anticipated 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 did not deter me from reaching the goal that I had set for myself.

Cicely Tyson: Just As I Am
/ HarperCollins

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

It is amazing. But they so impacted my life at the time. They affected me in a way that I could not forget those memories. And my sister and I sit down sometimes and salivate over them [the potatoes].

And you said her mac and cheese had no equal.

No one. No one. And she made a chicken soup that would make you lick the hair out of your nostrils. [Laughs]

You write about how you kind of fell into acting after a just improbable modeling career — you were literally in the typing pool of the Red Cross and then somebody spotted you and said you should be a model.

Yes, I was walking up Fifth Avenue. I would spend my lunch hour, actually, at Lord & Taylor. That was my favorite store. And I would go there every time I finished my lunch and peruse what they had. And someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked for my agency. And I asked, "What agency?" They said, "Aren't you 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 register at a modeling school and then you get your certificate if you're good enough." And then I started distributing my photographs among the agencies. And then I began to get calls and that's how it started.

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

When did you decide that acting was your calling? What was the thing that made you say, "This is what I have to do"?

Well, it happened because I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer. I would sit and observe and listen and watch people's actions in order to understand what they were. I wanted to know what prompted them to 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 writing about the effect that a role like Sounder had on people. And I think many people might know the story Paul Winfield played against you as Nathan and you played Rebecca. And it's a story of a loving Black couple, basically just trying to live against that obstacle. And what amazed me was you said that some of the reactions that people got — for example, television writers saying that they didn't realize that Black children called their parents Dad and Mom.

Can you imagine that? I was doing a promotion for Sounder. And after the film was completed, this journalist said that 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 tell you, I was so stunned. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath in order to question whether this man thought that we were human. You know, why can't my son call his Black father Daddy, as his sons called him. And it was at that time that I decided I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were certain issues I had to address and I would use my career as my platform.

And, you know, we can't let you go without talking about Miles Davis.

[Laughs] Well, you can, because he was part of my life.

What do you think you learned from that? I mean, you write about the fact that you all were like the "it" couple at the time. He's a jazz legend. You are a legend in your field. And yet, he had some issues as we all know. He had a serious drug problem and some other sort of issues, demons that he was dealing with. What do you think you learned from that relationship?

I wish people knew the Miles Davis that I knew. Really. Because you can walk into a bookstore and you see reams of books about Miles Davis. And few people who wrote those books know him. The Miles Davis that I know and knew is not the Miles Davis that you'll read about in those books. I had the good fortune to be close enough to him to have him reveal himself to me the first moment we met. It is the Miles Davis that kept me with him as long as it did. Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And that is the Miles Davis that people ... don't know that he was trying to protect.

You have a very forgiving spirit.

Well, isn't that what we're supposed to do, forgive each other, huh? We don't keep riding a rough truck over a sensitive soul. You can't do that. If people are looking for help, and you look and you see them and you know that they need help and you can help them. At least, I can. I can only speak for myself, OK? And so when I realized that he was in deep trouble and that he wanted — he said, "I don't want to do that anymore." So when somebody says that to you and they're asking for help, at least I would try to help them.

Do you have some advice for younger artists or those just beginning their careers after you've done so much and seen so much and been through so much? Do you have any advice that you would share?

Well, I don't feel like I am one to give advice, except to say, you know, my mother did not want me to be an actress and she said I could not live in her house and do that. But in my gut, I knew there was something there that I was put here to do. And she didn't speak to me for a couple of years.

And although I lived long enough and she lived long enough to see that I was not going to live in a den of iniquity and that I would not forget the teaching that she gave me in my early years. And finally she came around and I was able to hear her say, "I am so proud of you" and see that I was not going to forget my beginnings.

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

Just stick with it. Just stick with it. There's always a reason why you keep going in the direction you chose to go in.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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