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Cicely Tyson talks about her memoir, 'Jane Pittman,' Miles Davis, more

Cicely Tyson tells her story in the memoir

Cicely Tyson tells her story in the memoir "Just as I Am." Credit: Harpo Inc.

For years, friends asked actress Cicely Tyson when she was going to write her memoir, and her answer was always the same: "When I have something to say?"

The Oscar nominee (for "Sounder") and Emmy winner (1974's "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"), finally got to share her story in her memoir "Just As I Am" (HarperCollins, $28.99) which came out just two days before death at age 96 on Thursday. In her intro, Tyson wrote that the book will tell her truth "plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside."

And she lived up to her word detailing her difficult childhood, the prejudices she encountered throughout her career, getting pregnant at 17, her tumultuous marriage to jazz great Miles Davis, and much more.

The veteran performer spoke by phone with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo two weeks before her passing about the book, "Jane Pittman" and more.

I have to ask about that striking cover photo of you with a shaved head. Was that your choice?

I went to London to promote "Sounder" in 1972, and the photographer was Lord Snowdon [then-husband of Princess Margaret]. He said "Miss Tyson, I’m quite taken with you. Would you mind if I took a few photographs of you?" I said, "Of course not." I had never seen the photos. When ["Sounder" co-star] Paul Winfield was quite ill and about to pass away, I understand that he received the photo from Snowdon who had sent it to him as a birthday present. He had placed it above his headboard. And when he knew he was going to leave, he asked his PA [personal assistant] to give it to him. And he said to her, "Give this to Cicely." I was stunned when I saw it because I had not been aware of its existence. And I said "that will be the cover of my book."

What was the most difficult part of the book to write about?

The situation when my mother decided to take us away from my father because of his abusiveness. That was very hard to write about. And when I was asked to leave school because someone had discussed that I was married and had a child.

When you were making "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," did you imagine the movie would bring about more stories like "Roots" that would feature Black actors?

Isn't that interesting? No, when I make a movie, I’m either in love with the woman or I’m not. And I was madly in love with Jane Pittman. She was so fabulous. And the woman lived to 110 and she didn’t let anyone get in her way, she didn’t care who it was.

I loved reading about how it took six hours in makeup to transform you into Jane as an old woman. When you finally saw the movie, what did you think of your performance?

I never watch my work. I was at the theater when they set it up. I sat in the back seat. I was about to get up and sneak out when I ran into the producers. And they said "No you don’t, come back here." So they took me and put me back in my seat. I sat there for about 10 minutes and when everybody settled down, I went upstairs to the projection room and I watched it. And when it was over, I simply said "I like that lady." And I left.

I couldn't believe the incident you recall about the white man at the "Sounder" premiere who told you he was shocked that Black children called their father Daddy in the film.

It’s hard to to believe that one human being, because of the color of his skin, or the lack of it, could not believe that this other human being could have children who refer to him as Daddy. Because that's what his children called him, how dare this Black man be called the same thing. It was one of the most shocking things I ever heard. It stopped me right in my tracks, and I made up my mind at that moment in time that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I had some issues I wanted to address and I would use my career as my platform, which is what I did.

You write about your marriage to Miles Davis, including his issues with drugs and infidelity and his jealousy. Did you feel like you were reliving your parents' marriage?

Oh yeah. I looked back at my parents' marriage many times during the making of this book. I saw my father in Miles and my mother in me. She saw it, too.

How selective are you about the roles you choose?

It has to speak for an issue I am addressing. And if I read a script and my skin tingles, I can’t wait. It has to address something that’s eroding humanity. When I think I can do something in a performance to change something, that's when I find it challenging.

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