Catching Up With Cicely Tyson

Robin Roberts has vivid memories of watching the power and presence of actress Cicely Tyson as a young girl.

For the last four decades Tyson has played strong, memorable women — from Kunta Kinte's mother in "Roots," to her Emmy-winning portrayal of Jane Pittman in "The Autobiography of Jane Pittman," Tyson has taken on challenging roles that question race in society.

Her breakthrough was as Rebecca in the 1972 film "Sounder." For her performance Tyson earned an Academy Award nomination at a time when most black actors were appearing in so-called "blaxploitation" films.

Off screen, Tyson has also made a powerful impact through her political activism and her work with children, especially at The Cicely Tyson School of Performing Arts.

"There were so many issues that I felt that I had to address and I used my career as my platform," Tyson said.

She's an inspiration to the young girls at the Tyson School and to generations of women who grew up watching her on screen.

As part of "Good Morning America's" childhood idols series, Roberts spent the day with Tyson at The Dance Theater of Harlem, an institution Tyson co-founded in 1968.

The two became fast friends and realized they had a lot in common, including as a love of exercise.

"I do 100 pushups a day!" exclaimed the 73-year-old, who is still bursting with energy.


Growing up in a religious family, Tyson said her parents didn't want her to be an actress. Her mother didn't speak to her for two years after she decided to pursue acting.

But the silence was finally broken one night when Tyson walked off the stage from a performance and found her mother talking to her fans.

"I come out. And there is my mother standing at the door accepting congratulatory remarks: 'Yes, I always knew she was going to do. … You know, ever since she was a little girl, you know, she liked to sing and dance and perform. I knew!' And I couldn't believe it," Tyson recalled.

Following her own instincts, in spite of those around her, always served Tyson well, she said. In the short-lived television series "East Side West Side" she became the first black actress to have a continuing role on a network show. And she started a hair trend to boot!

Tyson made it a principle to only take roles that she found meaning in, when the script made her skin "tingle," refusing to portray the stereotypical black characters typical of the 1960s and 1970s.

"I felt very strongly that, had I accepted any of those roles, I couldn't live with myself," she said.

Jane Pittman

Roberts remembers getting chills watching Tyson star in the "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," and she spoke to Tyson about the scene that made such an impact in her own life.

In a defining moment of the film, Jane Pittman walks up and drinks from the whites-only water fountain.

"I was about 13 years old, and I was saying to myself, 'I want to have that kind of meaning in my life,'" Roberts told Tyson. "When you're shooting something like that, do you know it's just gold? Do you know at the moment?"

"I don't think about it, no no," Tyson said. "My favorite scene is the old oak tree … where she talks about what this tree had seen, compared to what she had seen."

Still Going Strong

Nowadays, in addition to her work at her school and at the Dance Theatre, Tyson is still taking on important roles on the big screen. Most recently she appeared in movies by director Tyler Perry, aimed directly at a black audience.

"He has shaken up Hollywood. He has made them aware of the fact that there is a market, and he has found it," said Tyson.

She's hoping that her characters will continue speaking to young people, just as they did to Roberts.

"I feel so guilty about the state of young people today," Tyson said. "And I say that because our generation fought for everything. We fought to sit down at a counter, to sit on a bus. They were left with nothing to fight for."