For five seasons on How to Get Away With Murder, Cicely Tyson brought heart and dignity to the recurring role of Ophelia Harkness, a woman suffering from dementia. “Do people who suffer dementia know?” she asked Closer Weekly exclusively, prior to her death at age 96 on January 28, 2021. “I don’t think they know … So that’s the way I treated her.”
The Emmy and Tony-winning actress had a firm grip on her own memories. She just published her first memoir, Just As I Am, which chronicled her life through her six-decade-long acting career and her tumultuous marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis. “I’m only beginning to fully understand my identity,” admitted Cicely, who said that writing the book allowed her to find her truth. “It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside.”
Reliving the past may have been a voyage of self-discovery for Cicely, but she had always known the kind of complex yet respectable woman she wanted to bring to life on-screen. “To thine own self be true,” she said. “Do that, and you’ll have no regrets.”
From her breakout role as sharecropper Rebecca in Sounder to the warm-hearted maid who becomes a surrogate mother to a young girl in The Help, she helped tell the rich and diverse stories of Black women. “When I read a script, one of two things happen to me. Either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know I can’t do this thing, and I can pass it very easily. I don’t care how much they offer me, I can’t do it,” Cicely explained. “Now, when my skin tingles and I can’t be still, that’s mine.”
In telling her own story, Cicely’s on-and-off relationship with Miles, her second husband, took center stage. She began dating the legendary jazz trumpeter in the late 1960s. They split for a decade, rekindled their relationship in 1978, and were married in 1981.
Although Cicely acknowledged the troubles that prompted her to divorce him eight years later, she insisted that there was a tender side to the notoriously difficult musician. “I got to know the soul of a man who is as gentle as a lamb. He covered it up with this ruthless attitude because he was so shy,” Cicely revealed. “In trying to be the kind of tough person that people thought he was, he ruined his life … That’s the Miles Davis I knew.” Before his death in 1991, Miles sent his apologies to his ex-wife for the pain he had caused her.
Looking back over her life, even the hard parts, made Cicely feel blessed. “I take it a day at a time and am grateful for every day that God gives me,” she said, adding that she never feared death. “How could I be afraid of something I don’t know anything about?” she asked. “People say it is this and it is that. But they don’t know. They’ve not been there. I’ve not been there. [But] I’m not in a hurry to go, either!”
Reporting by Louise A. Barile
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