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LeVar Burton remembers Cicely Tyson: "Her presence onscreen was nothing short of mesmerizing"

  • Burton recalled working with Tyson on his first day as a professional actor when she played his mother on Roots. "I could hardly believe I was in the presence of such a legend let alone about to act opposite her in a scene," Burton writes in a Variety tribute, adding: "Over the course of the morning’s work I was in awe. Understandably nervous, I wanted desperately to impress her in any way I might...During a lull, I saw what I was certain to be a sure fire way to score some approval points. An interloper, some gnarly bug, had made it’s way into the hut and in my mind did pose a threat to the one and only Cicely Tyson. So, I bravely trapped it under my foot and squashed it! Her response was as unexpected as any I have ever encountered. She lit into me as if she had given birth to me, 'Don’t you ever think that because you are bigger than a thing, or more powerful, that you have the right to take it’s life!' I stood there mute. Mortified and crestfallen, chastised by the mother I had only just met. Then she hugged me with a fierceness that almost took my breath away. In true motherly fashion she impressed upon me in that moment, not only the sanctified nature of life but the responsibility of the strong to watch out for and protect the weak, as well." Burton adds: "Elegance, style and natural grace oozed effortlessly from every pore of her being, but the word that describes her best in my mind is, regal. She was royalty with a capital 'R.' She possessed a nobility of character and carriage that could, in equal turns, enchant and intimidate. She knew exactly who she was and dared anyone to disagree with her self-assessment. She was vital, energetic and possessing of an irresistible magnetism that made folks of every stripe and station clamor to be in her midst. Her presence onscreen was nothing short of mesmerizing. Her unparalleled gift was the ability to imbue each character she portrayed with immense humanity which made them cherished and memorable to audiences around the world. She played big both in life and on the stage in spite of her diminutive frame, but make no mistake, she could summon the fierceness of a prowling lioness at will."


    • Cicely Tyson embodied what it takes to be a great actor: instinct and intention: "It must have been a supernatural force that made Tyson — who was not allowed to see movies outside her neighborhood church as a child — a movie star," says Ann Hornaday. "And not just a star, but a powerful symbol of Black womanhood for a generation of Americans steeped in images that denigrated and dismissed people on the basis of their race and gender. From the early 1960s, when Tyson co-starred with Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. in the groundbreaking play The Blacks, and made films and television series like Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots, Tyson’s regal sense of quiet confidence changed the iconography of Black womanhood on and off the screen. When she adopted a natural hairstyle for the TV show East Side/West Side, she received 'bags and bags' of hate mail. But that move also started a cultural trend that symbolized liberation from Eurocentric, male-defined standards of beauty."
    • Watch Cicely Tyson's final interview, on Live with Kelly Ryan, taped one day before her death and shown this morning

    TOPICS: Cicely Tyson, Live with Kelly and Ryan, Roots (1977), LeVar Burton