Actress Cicely Tyson has been termed an icon, but she doesn’t see herself in that light.
Call her the black female Charlton Heston - for having portrayed such heroic, larger-than-life figures as Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King and schoolteacher Marva Collins - and she pounds her fists on her knees, tightens her face and rages, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!”
The truth is, though, that in the course of her 35-year acting career, she has spanned the history of the African-American experience in the New World, from the earliest days - as Kunta Kinte’s mother in “Roots” - to today, as Carrie Grace Battle in “Sweet Justice,” 9 .m. Saturdays on CBS.
Yet until a visitor mentions this pattern, akin to a time line, she claims not to have realized it.
“It’s the most amazing thing to me,” she says, seated ramrod straight at the edge of an easy chair in her trailer on the Sony lot in Los Angeles during a break from filming her new prime-time series. “I’ve never thought of it in that way - and you’re absolutely right.
“But I am a firm believer in divine guidance, so when something comes my way and I recognize it as a gift, I accept it as such, and I go with it. And that’s the way my life’s been.
“And that includes the yin and the yang of it, believe me. You have to have balance. You can’t have one and not the other.”
“Sweet Justice” presents Tyson as head of a small New Orleans law firm, with Melissa Gilbert as the firm’s newest recruit, a raw yet natural litigator named Kate Delacroy.
Kate’s mother marched with Carrie Grace during the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, against the wishes of her husband, a leading attorney in the city, and died in an auto accident while returning from a meeting.
Now Kate has cast her lot with Carrie Grace rather than with her father, adding an extra undercoating of drama to the series.
For Tyson, 58, who first won television acclaim and an Emmy in 1974 for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the fictional account of 90 years in the life of an ex-slave, the role of Carrie Grace is a godsend. (She won another Emmy last summer for a supporting role in “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”)
“I am enjoying her (Carrie Grace) tremendously,” Tyson says. “I am fascinated with the manner in which she is evolving.
“I had a kind of thumbnail sketch of what she was like. I did not want to set her. I did not want to fulfill her because I wanted her to grow and develop in her own way.
“Every now and then she says or does something which seems totally alien, but in the given set of circumstances, it is right. And if that’s the way she reacts to it, then that is part of her nature.”
The start of “Sweet Justice” actually was a 1993 television movie, “House of Secrets,” in which Tyson and Gilbert co-starred.
“The consensus was that we had a special chemistry,” Tyson recalls, and the actresses’ managers, working together, came up with the idea of a program about two Southern attorneys.
Tyson says that when she reads a script, one of two things happens: “Either my skin tingles or my stomach churns - and when my skin tingles, I know, hey, I’ve got to have it.”
That same gut feeling induced her to play Carrie Grace.
“First, she is a contemporary woman, and friends have been encouraging me all along to find one to play. Second, her passion equaled mine in terms of justice.
“Third, I have spent so many years of my career traveling, going from one location to another, that I really wanted to do something that would keep me in one area for a little bit. I refer to it as my 9-to-5 job.”
Since Tyson first surfaced on television alongside George C. Scott as a fellow urban social worker in the 1963 series “East Side/ West Side,” she hasn’t remained rooted for long, pursuing her career in movies, television and theater and supporting numerous causes, including UNICEF, the NAACP, and Dance Theater of Harlem, the troupe she helped found in 1972.
Yet this product of an immigrant Episcopalian household in New York’s Harlem - a building in which she lived was given landmark status recently - still considers her whole career to have been an ironic fluke, considering that as a child she was forbidden to go to the movies.
Her parents were from Nevis, a speck of land in the Caribbean. Her father ran a small produce business and tried his hand at interior decorating, and her mother cleaned houses.
Cicely, her brother and sister spent many afternoons and evenings in the care of a devout Baptist housekeeper. With the Baptist and Episcopalian storefront churches on the same block, Tyson “had the benefit of both,” she says.
After high school she went to work as a typist in a local social agency. One day, working on a case history involving incest, which she had never encountered, Tyson became overwhelmed by the subject matter, “and by the mechanics of banging on the typewriter.
“I simply pushed myself away, in this huge place, with typists all over, and I said, ‘I’m sure that God didn’t put me on the face of this Earth to bang on a typewriter the rest of my life. I don’t know what else there is for me to do, but I know that this isn’t it.’
“Then I pulled myself back to the desk and finished typing.”
A day later her hairdresser called and asked her to be a model for one of his hairstyling shows. She enjoyed the experience immensely, and people noticed her, but when she was asked who represented her, “I said, ‘I don’t have an agent. I’m just doing this for fun.”’
The idea took hold, and before long she was modeling regularly.
One afternoon, while on an interview at Ebony magazine, an actress spotted her in an outer office and told an editor that this young woman might be just right for the ingenue lead in a movie being cast. The editor alerted Tyson and she contacted the producer, who hired her.
The project, underfunded, never saw the light of day. But a year later, when the group raised enough money for a new project, Tyson won not only a role but also a scholarship to the Actors Studio.
The movie, “Caribe Gold,” soon was followed by a non-speaking role as a cashier in “Odds Against Tomorrow,” starring Harry Belafonte.
Other movie roles soon followed. In 1961 she joined the cast of an off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.” Reflecting on this extraordinary experience, Tyson argues that it was responsible for the growth of avant-garde theater in the United States.
Yet it represented even more than that.
“That play produced Maya Angelou, myself, Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, (playwright Charles) Gordone who won the Pulitzer Prize (for “No Place to Be Somebody”). Every black actor of note came through that show,” she said.
“It ran for 3 years, and in the course of its existence, we all left, went off and did other things and came back. I was in and out of it four times.”
It was Tyson’s civil rights statement, during the years of political and social unrest. While others demonstrated or marched, she recalls, “I was on the stage. Every play I did had to do with the civil rights movement. Every single piece addressed it.”
Now, she finds herself inexorably drawn back to that landmark moment in history through the sensibilities, memories and experiences of Carrie Grace, a role that has galvanized her entire being.
“I cannot be involved halfway,” she said. “At the beginning, when I began to read the scripts and had some misgivings about some things, I went to (the show’s creator) John Romano and said, ‘I’d like to be able to sit down and discuss this with you.”’
The weekly routine that ensued involved a rare collaborative effort, in which each week Tyson sits with the writers or producers and “together come up with something, if need be, that is either more interesting or more technically correct. It’s a wonderful rapport I have with them, and I really value it.
“It helps me, and if it helps me, it helps them.”
From the outset, Romano, who believes one should “play the conflict, play the uncertainties, don’t preach,” welcomed her input. He has found it “exciting,” he says, “to watch … the back and forth between her and some of our writers, including AfricanAmerican women, to hear differences in the points of view and to shape truly surprising and controversial directions.”
Like others, Romano underscores Tyson’s “mantle of responsibility, a position in this country’s culture.” Tyson deflects these perceptions but acknowledges she feels a distinct mandate, “born into this universe black and female.
“What’s important is that when I make a choice, that in some way it addresses the problems that exist for human beings on this universe. And so I look for women whose lives revolve around the problems and the manner in which they dealt with them, that allowed them to survive.
“I have learned in my lifetime that if you are black and live in this world, that you can be anything you want. And I think it is imperative that young people know and understand that.
“So if in the process of my choices, I have been able, through these women, to do that, then I’m really grateful for the gifts.”
Nonetheless, there is that yin and yang.
For most of her adulthood, she has been independent (she was married for a time in the 1980s to musician Miles Davis), a free spirit, quite like the wanderer she was as a youth.
“That’s my lot, and I accept it as such,” she says.
She recalls that when the awards came in for “Jane Pittman,” her mother, who never wanted her to become an actress but who enjoyed witnessing her daughter’s acclaim, said to Tyson, “Well, my dear, your free paper has been burned.”
It meant, the actress explains, “that I could not walk up and down and wander around the way she knew I loved to do.
“I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want anything to curtail that.’ So I just go about my life like I am who I am, without all of the trimmings,” she said. “That’s very important to me.
“It’s very important to be able to feel free enough to mill around people. That’s where my lifeblood comes from. If I’m going to be able to project a certain kind of person, then I want to be there.
“I want to feel, smell, taste and see them. That’s where I’m from. Not to be able to do that would be the kiss of death for me.”
Has anything eluded her? What does she still seek in her life or in her career?
“I don’t know if I can verbalize what it is,” she says. “I know that every morning I open my eyes and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got another day to get it right, whatever it is.’
“Obviously there is something more for me to do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.
“We’re all put here specifically to accomplish something. Although I’m the first person to say that I’m extremely grateful for my career, I still maintain that it is actually the steppingstone to something else.
“What it is, I’m not sure. I don’t know. But when the sign comes, I’ll recognize it.”
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