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- Hollywood legend Cicely Tyson died on Thursday, January 28.
- Tyson had a more than 70-year career on screen, during which she committed to only playing positive roles.
- Celebrities, like Oprah, the Obamas, and Tyler Perry, have paid tribute to Tyson’s accomplishments.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
World leaders and celebrities are reeling over the loss of on-screen legend Cicely Tyson who died Thursday after a career in theater, film, and television that spanned more than 70 years.
Tyson’s successes as an actress were plentiful, but her commitment to turning down roles she felt belittled or stereotyped Black women is what has forever changed Hollywood and inspired millions.
The 96-year-old New York City native got her start in modeling, but pivoted to acting in the early 1960s – at a time when Black men and women were often typecast in the entertainment industry as servants or criminals.
After playing a sex worker in two theater productions, Tyson stopped accepting gigs that she felt perpetrated that narrative.
She advocated for more positive representation in Hollywood, and for Black actors to turn down opportunities that called for them to play clichéd characters.
“We Black actresses have played so many prostitutes and drug addicts and housemaids, always negative,” Tyson told Parade magazine in 1972, according to The New York Times. “I won’t play that kind of characterless role any more, even if I have to go back to starving.”
That was the year that Tyson landed her role in the movie “Sounder,” in which she played the matriarch in a family of Black sharecroppers.
In a 1972 interview with The New York Times, Tyson made it clear she wanted to prioritize roles that showed the full lived experiences of Black Americans.
“Okay, so we have prostitutes and pimps and con men and pushers, the way they show in those movies, but we also have mothers and fathers and doctors and lawyers and teachers and politicians,” Tyson said. “A Black doctor was responsible for the first open heart surgery, and a black guy developed traffic lights, and little is known about that.”
She went on to appear in more than 100 film, television and theater productions, The Times reported.
She one three Emmys, a Tony, and a long list of awards from civil rights and women’s organizations.
On Thursday, Oprah Winfrey shared a photo of herself and Tyson at the 2005 Legends Ball, an event she organized to honor 25 Black women who “built a bridge” for generations to come.
“Cicely decided early on that her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people” Winfrey wrote. “The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised.
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