Cicely Tyson received her first and only Oscar nomination in 1972. It was for best actress for her work in “Sounder,” which she thinks of as her first major role. She wasn’t called to the stage that year — Liza Minnelli was for “Cabaret” — but now 45 years later, Tyson is finally getting her Oscar.
“It is an emotionally wrenching matter to me,” Tyson said.
Tyson, 93, is no stranger to awards and honors. She’s won three Emmys (two in the same year for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and one for “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”), a Tony award (for “The Trip to Bountiful”), been a Kennedy Center honoree and, in 2016 was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. Now she can add one more award to that list as she prepares to accept her honorary Oscar Sunday at the 10th annual Governors Awards Sunday in Hollywood.
“I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time,” Tyson said. “I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it.”
When film academy President John Bailey called her to inform her that the Board of Governors voted unanimously to give her the award, she “went to water.”
“It is the last thing in the world that I ever expected,” Tyson said, thinking, “I hadn’t done a major movie since ‘The Help.’”
Tyson has worked since the 2011 film, with roles in “Last Flag Flying” and the television show “How to Get Away With Murder,” but “The Help” was the last film that had anyone mentioning her name alongside Oscar. Oprah even called her and predicted she’d get a nomination, to which she responded: “My role was two seconds!”
“I am extremely grateful to the Board that they even know my name,” Tyson added with a hearty laugh.
She is being honored Sunday along with publicist Marvin Levy and composer Lalo Schifrin.
Born in Harlem, Tyson started out as a model and theater actress, eventually landing a role in the film “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in 1968. Her pursuit of acting caused a rift with her mother, who disapproved, but Tyson said she was her “motivating force.”
“I was determined to prove her wrong,” Tyson said.
Plus, she learned quickly that she had a larger purpose than just acting. On the press tour for “Sounder,” which took her to parts of the United States that she hadn’t yet been to, she remembers a man in a press conference telling her that watching the film made him realize that he was prejudiced.
“He said, ‘You know, I could not accept the fact that your older son was referring to his father as daddy. That’s what my son calls me,’” Tyson said. “And I thought to myself, ‘My God. My God.’ It was those kinds of experiences as I went across the country promoting ‘Souder’ that made me realize that I, Cicely Tyson, could not afford the luxury of being an actress. There were some issues that I definitely had to address and I chose my profession as my platform.”
It led to a lifetime of activism and humanitarianism off screen. Tyson even has a performing arts school named after her in New Jersey and frequently goes on tour to speak to children. On screen Tyson has portrayed women like Coretta Scott King and Harriet Ross Tubman. She decided early that she would only take jobs that “speak to something,” which is also why she ends up saying “no” a lot.
“My honorary Oscar proves to me that I was on the right track and I stayed on it,” Tyson said.
And while most of the time “no” works, sometimes it doesn’t. Tyson tried to say no to wearing a terrifically large hat to Aretha Franklin’s funeral only to be overruled by her designer. The hat would become a viral highlight.
“I never thought in my career that I would be upstaged by a hat! And I did not want to wear it,” Tyson said. “I said, ‘I can’t wear that hat, I will be blocking the view of the people behind me, they won’t be able to see and they’ll call me all kinds of names.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Put the hat on.’”
She came around, eventually, thinking of the hat as homage to Franklin’s appearance at Obama’s inauguration.
As for whether or not she’ll don a similarly spectacular piece of art on her head Sunday night at the Governors Awards? Tyson just laughs.
“Oh no!” she said. “I won’t even mention it to him.”