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‘Just As I Am’: 9 Takeaways From Cicely Tyson’s Memoir


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Cicely Tyson is such a household name in Hollywood that any memoir from the venerable nonagenarian actress would be sure to find an audience keen to know the secret behind her art and her endurance in the industry. But in her memoir Just As I Am, released Tuesday by HarperCollins, Tyson is quick to tell readers that she originally never had any intentions of ever sharing her story. Rather, she writes, she now “has something to say” and is ready to share “how my tree, my story, first sprung into existence. How its roots, stretching far beneath the soil, have nourished and anchored me.” 

At 96-years-old, the beloved actress has had a stellar career that has spanned more than six decades, starring in a myriad of critically acclaimed projects such as Sounder, Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to name a few. She’s also been recognized for her work in theater, feted as a style icon, and received both an honorary Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among a host of other accomplishments.

Throughout her memoir, Tyson reflects on her journey from her early life, in which she shares the story of her early pregnancy; her career jump start as a model, which would eventually lead to acting; and her up and down relationship with jazz legend Miles Davis who passed away in 1991.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at some of the highlights found in Just As I Am

(Update: Tyson died on Thursday, two days after her memoir was published. She gave her last interviews, including a sit-down with Gayle King, this week.)

Tyson Looks Back at Career Standouts

With an impressive resume of work on the stage and on both the small and big screen, Tyson reflects on some of her most popular roles including Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots. Tyson received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Rebecca in Sounder. Though she recalls the happy emotions she felt after learning of the film’s praise and nominations, Tyson also reveals the relief she felt for finally being able to prove her mother wrong, as her mother always expressed her doubts and opinions throughout her childhood. Though she lost to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret, Tyson writes that she already won personally for having what she always wanted: “The affirmation of the dear woman who gave me birth.” In 2018, Tyson was awarded an honorary Oscar. 

Of Pittman, Tyson writes “I would have done Jane Pittman in the basement of a basement” and said the character and story “was critical to the cultural moment” given “Blaxploitation had shifted into sixth gear with disgraceful movies.” To prepare for the role in which she would have to play a young adult up to a 110-year-old, she writes that she visited a home for the elderly, channeled the scratchy voice she would use to get time off from work for auditions and requested a local dentist to make her a gold tooth after envisioning the image of her character. She says achieving a hunched body turned out to be easier than she thought. She recalls mopping the floor of her home when her left side collapsed. After realizing she was hunched over “with a large protruding onion at the very top of my back” she knew she had her hump and no longer needed the bodysuit with a hump build into it. The film, which Tyson says “marked the end of my anonymity,” went on to receive 13 Emmy nods and two Emmy wins for Tyson.

Of Roots, Tyson writes that despite having “played more than a hundred roles in my time… millions will forever know me as Binta.” As for its memorable opening scene, Tyson admits that they filmed it so many times she lost her voice by the end of filming. 

When looking back at her myriad of roles, Tyson says “there are traces of who I am in every woman I have portrayed” and each character has left her “with an emotional, spiritual, and psychological inheritance I will forever carry with me.”

Tyson Reflects on Suing Elizabeth Taylor’s Production Company 

In one moment of her memoir, Tyson addresses the headlines of her falling out with Elizabeth Taylor and explains her side of the story. Near the end of the run of the stage revival of The Corn Is Green — the revival was presented from  Taylor’s production company, in conjunction with Zev Buffman — Tyson writes that for the first time she had requested “one night off to attend a tribute to Miles [Davis].” Then when the director refused, she confirms that she took the night off anyway which led her to be “fired and replaced for the remainder of the production.” She writes that she then sued Taylor’s production company for the earnings they still owed her. “I heard Liz went through four lawyers in attempting to mount a defense and she no doubt spent hundreds of thousands in fees,” Tyson writes as she explains she never wanted things to escalate and head to court. As a result, Tyson recalls many in the industry no longer speaking to her “because I’d dared to sue someone of Liz’s caliber.” But she argues that had the situation been reversed, “Liz would’ve sued my nylons off.” “I would’ve been down on Sunset Boulevard, living in a cardboard box and begging for my supper and no one would’ve cared,” she writes. After the suit was filed, Tyson admits she and Taylor never spoke directly about it. The two would eventually reunite by chance when Tyson ran into Taylor and James Earl Jones having dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She says Taylor laughed and told James, “You know something? Cicely sued me” before asking Tyson “And how much money did you get?” Tyson says she “loudly announced for the room to hear, ‘I was awarded more than a half-million dollars.’” “She just shook her head and grinned. Liz might’ve been Hollywood’s golden girl — but I claimed the golden egg,” Tyson quips.  

She Dodged Marlon Brando’s Flirtation

“He had a reputation and a half with women,” Tyson writes of the late Marlon Brando. She recalls the time when she declined an invitation to join a dinner gathering for Taylor and the film crew of the project they were working on. Instead of joining Brando, Taylor and the others, she returned to her hotel room to rest. To her surprise, she was called by the front desk to inform her that Brando was waiting in the lobby to pick her up for dinner. “He says he’d like to come upstairs to your room,” she recalls the attendant telling her. Tyson told the attendant to tell him to leave. “I can only guess what Marlon had in mind when he tried to push his way up to my room,” Tyson writes. When Brando visited the set the next day, she says he “put his arms around my waist” and explained that he hadn’t received her earlier message declining the dinner invitation. She writes, “Both of us knew that wasn’t the case, but we laughed it off and moved on.”

Her Miles Davis Relationship Was Filled With Highs and Lows 

A continuous thread throughout Tyson’s memoir are details of her relationship with jazz legend Miles Davis. She reflects on meeting Davis for the first time while he lived in the same building as her friend Diahann Carroll. The two would eventually develop a relationship over time. As she looked back on their journey, Tyson acknowledges the misperceptions the public had of Davis. “When the world speaks of Miles, the legend, they have no idea who the man really was,” she writes. Tyson later describes feeling devastated after learning of Davis’ infidelity which led to her leaving him. But their paths crossed again for what she described as “Act Two” of their story in which she learned he was “back in cocaine’s grip” and enduring health issues such as his kidneys shutting down and wheezing as he spoke. Though she was aware many wondered how “a church girl and a drug addict could ever possibly fit together” — Tyson reiterates that she never witnessed Davis use and recalled the moment he hit her once during an argument and she ripped off his weave — she writes that she knew he needed someone “to save him from himself” and she “needed someone to save.” She helped him on a journey back to health and the couple eventually married but divorced years later after Davis’ infidelity began again. Davis eventually passed away in 1991, with Tyson expressing how she knows they both loved each other and formed a “deep connection, however flawed our union was.” 

Tyson Denies Accusations Made in Miles Davis’ Memoir

The actress says for months prior to their final meeting — Davis had pleaded for the actress to not proceed with a divorce, which Tyson refused — Davis had been “relaying his life story on tape, speaking in glowing terms about how I’d resurrected him to life, how I’d nursed him back onto his horn and kept him from annihilating himself.” But after their meeting in the cafe, she reveals that he “altered his characterization of me.” She admits that she never read the jazz trumpeter’s memoir published in 1989 and is aware he had “some not-so-pleasant words to say about me.” “I didn’t need to read a book to know what was true. I lived it,” she emphasizes. 

Bill Cosby 

Tyson briefly discussed her first introduction with Cosby while starring as Princess Amara in I Spy then later co-starring with the comedian in The Bill Cosby Show. After filming a kissing scene, Tyson recalls the soundman hearing “some kind of ambient noise” which continued after each take. “The commotion, it turned out, was Bill’s heart thumping away in his chest,” she writes. Though she doesn’t comment on Cosby’s recent troubles, she says, “In all our years working together, he never laid a finger on me off set, but for that scene, I did get his ticker going.” She also says that she and Davis would go on to have dinner occasionally with Cosby and his wife, Camille, and even married at the couple’s home in Massachusetts in 1981. 

Tyson Makes Physical and Mental Health a Priority 

At 96-years-old, Tyson details how much she makes her physical and mental health a priority. Routines she follows include eating a healthy serving of greens, going on walks and even doing pullups daily. “My bar is right in the doorway of my master bedroom. Soon as I get up in the morning, I do three sets of 20 pull-ups,” she writes. She also stresses that “continuing to take roles, well into my nineties, has been my sustaining force,” brushing off any retirement talks. “You can’t just stop or that’ll be the end of you. I aim to live… It’s what gets me out of bed, eager to do my pull-ups, and curious to discover the world anew.”

She Thought a Call From the White House Was a Prank

When Tyson was called by an aid for President Barack Obama informing her that he wanted to award Tyson with the Medal of Freedom, Tyson says she laughed and hung up thinking it was a prank. She then called her friend who’d once worked on Obama’s campaign, and her friend told her the woman who rang her did in fact work at the White House. “My manager, of course immediately got the White House on the phone and confirmed my attendance at the celebration.” When remembering the experience, Tyson expresses her joy and emotions for being the final recipient of the honor of Obama’s presidency. 

Tyson Shares What She Hopes Her Legacy Will Be

Now in her “twilight years,” Tyson writes that it’s common for her to be asked what legacy she would hope to leave. “I want to go home knowing that I loved generously, even if imperfectly,” she writes, adding that she also wants to “be recalled as one who squared my shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves” and “did the very best that I could with what God gave me —  just as I am.” 

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