MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, a few moments with the one, the only, the legend, actress Cicely Tyson. During a career spanning six decades, she's brought to life iconic roles in theater, film and television, from "Sounder" to "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman" to "Roots" to "How To Get Away With Murder" - roles that have offered previously unseen images of the sweep and humanity of Black life. Now in a new memoir, she finally - finally - sets forth her improbable journey from the typing pool at the Red Cross to award-winning actor and icon of style. Her book is called "Just As I Am." And Cicely Tyson is here with us to tell us more about it.
Cicely Tyson, Ms. Tyson, welcome. It's such an honor to have you with us.
CICELY TYSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, honestly, if someone were to write the story of your life as a novel, I don't think people would believe it.
MARTIN: I mean, you started modelling the age of 30, when most models are hanging up their stilettos. You got your first starring role when you were nearly 50 - I mean, crazy.
TYSON: (Laughter) That's life - at least, mine (laughter).
MARTIN: Does it seem that way to you?
TYSON: Well, it's remarkable to me that I have arrived at where I am today because I had not anticipated it. I made the decision based on things that happened to me along the way. And I just kept going. You know, no matter what happened in my life, it did not deter me from reaching the goals that I had set for myself.
MARTIN: You write very movingly of your parents, even though you are very honest about the difficulties they had in their relationship and also, frankly, some of the difficulties you had with them. Your memory seems so sharp. Like, I remember you writing about the delicious potatoes your mother would make and...
TYSON: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: ...At lunch. And it's just amazing to me that you can remember all these details.
TYSON: It is amazing. But they were - they so impacted my life at the time. They affected me in a way that I could not forget those memories. And my sister and I sit down sometimes and salivate over them.
MARTIN: The potatoes - and you said her mac and cheese had no equal.
TYSON: No one - no one. And she made a chicken soup that would make you lick the hair out of your nostrils.
MARTIN: So you write about how you kind of fell into acting after a modeling career - this just improbable modelling career. Like, you were literally, as we said, in the typing pool at the Red Cross, and you'd kind of go to the department stores on the - kind of the late, great...
TYSON: Lord and Taylor.
MARTIN: ...Lord and Taylor lunch hour...
TYSON: Yes. That was my favorite place.
MARTIN: ...Sadly just closing its doors. When did you decide that acting was your calling? What was the thing that made you say, this is what I have to do?
TYSON: It happened because I learned that I could speak through other people. I was a very shy child. I was an observer. I would sit and observe and listen and watch people's actions in order to understand what they were. I wanted to know what prompted them to say and do the things that they did. I sucked my fingers for 12 years. I never spoke. I was a silencer, but I was a great observer.
MARTIN: I remember your writing about the effect that a role like "Sounder" had on people, where you played Rebecca. And I think many people might know the story, where Paul Winfield played against you as the - Nathan, and you played Rebecca. And it's a story of kind of a loving Black couple basically just trying to live against...
TYSON: That's right.
MARTIN: ...All obstacles.
TYSON: That's exactly right, yes.
MARTIN: And what amazed me was you said that some of the reactions that people got when - like, for example, television writers saying that they didn't realize that Black children called their parents dad and mom.
TYSON: Can you imagine that? I was doing a promotion for "Sounder." And after I finished, after the film was completed, this - Jerry Lewis said that he discovered a bit of bigotry in himself when he realized that this Black boy, which was my first son, Kevin Hooks, calls his father daddy. And when I asked why, he said, that's what my son calls me.
And I tell you, I was so stunned. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath in order to question whether this man thought that we were human. You know, why can't my son call his Black father daddy, as his sons called him? And it was at that time that I decided I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. There were certain issues I had to address and I would use my career as my platform.
MARTIN: And you know we can't let you go without talking about Miles Davis.
TYSON: Well, you can because he was part of my life.
MARTIN: What do you think you learned from that? I mean, you write about the fact that you all were, like, the it couple at the time. I mean, you were one of the it couples. I mean, he's a jazz legend. You are a legend in your field. And yet, you know, he had some issues, as we all know. I mean, he had a serious drug problem and some other sort of issues, demons that he was dealing with. What do you think you learned from that relationship?
TYSON: I wish people knew the Miles Davis that I knew, really, because you can walk into a bookstore, and you see reams of books about Miles Davis. And few people who wrote the books know him. Not only was he brilliantly talented, he was brilliantly sensitive. And that is the Miles Davis that people know - that don't know that he was trying to protect.
MARTIN: You have a very forgiving spirit.
TYSON: Well, isn't that what we're supposed to do, forgive each other, huh? We don't keep riding a rough truck over a sensitive soul. You can't do that. If people are looking for help, and you look and you see them and you know that they need help - OK? - and you can help them. At least, I can. I can only speak for myself, OK? And so when I realized that he was in deep trouble and that he wanted - he said, I don't want to do that anymore, OK? So when somebody says that to you and they're asking for help, at least I would try to help them.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Ms. Tyson, we have only just scratched the surface of your remarkable life. And I am so honored to have had this time to spend with you. But before I let you go, do you have some advice for younger artists or those just beginning their careers after you've done so much and seen so much and been through so much? Do you have any advice that you would share?
TYSON: Just stick with it. Just stick with it. There's a reason why. There's always a reason why you keep going in the direction you chose to go in.
MARTIN: That is the legend, Cicely Tyson. Her new book, "Just As I Am," is out Tuesday.
Cicely Tyson, thank you so much for speaking with us. It is indeed an honor.
TYSON: I appreciate so much your time. Thank you.
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