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Remembering Actor Cicely Tyson

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we want to take a few minutes to remember Cicely Tyson. The legendary actress died on Thursday at the age of 96. I had the pleasure of interviewing her just last week about her new memoir, "Just As I Am." We think it's one of her final conversations. So we thought one way to remember Ms. Tyson would be to share more of that conversation, like this exchange when she told me how she more or less fell into acting and modeling while she was working in the typing pool at the Red Cross.

CICELY TYSON: Yes. I was walking up Fifth Avenue. I would spend my time - my lunch hour, actually - at Lord and Taylor. That was my favorite store. And I would go there every time I finished my lunch and peruse what they had. I loved that store.

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.

MARTIN: And one of the things that stands out for me in reading the book is that when you set your mind to something, you not only set out to do it - you set out to learn everything you can about it. I mean, you took the class. You took acting classes.

TYSON: No question. No question. No question. That's the way I am about everything. It doesn't matter how minuscule it seems. I want to know. I go to - someone said to me, why do you feel you have to start at the bottom? I said, because that's where the seed is. You know, how do I know what to do and how to do it if I don't find out what the seed of it is? And so I have to go into the seed to understand what the root gives.

MARTIN: Those efforts would grow into a career spanning decades, bringing us iconic roles in "Sounder," "Roots" and "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman," among many others. And despite her unlikely beginnings, Ms. Tyson said she felt that acting was her life's calling, even when it caused a rift with her mother, as she explains here when I asked her to give young artists advice.

TYSON: Well (laughter), 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 so I moved out and into the apartment of a girlfriend who had an apartment and a job, wore the same size dress I wore, et cetera, et cetera. 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 she knew that I was not going to forget my beginnings.

MARTIN: And so your advice would be what? Just stick with it and...

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

MARTIN: That was actress Cicely Tyson from unaired portions of our conversation last week. She died on Thursday at the age of 96.

(SOUNDBITE OF HNNY'S "MONTARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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