For an actress well into her golden years, landing the role of a lifetime is a rare achievement. To play that role three times in close succession is something akin to seeing the show-business stars align.
"It's been quite a journey," said Cicely Tyson in a soft but intense whisper.
The vocal understatement was perhaps deliberate for an actress conserving her energy as she gears up to reprise her Tony Award-winning performance in "The Trip to Bountiful," which opens Sept. 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre. In between New York and Los Angeles, Tyson played the role in a TV movie of the Horton Foote play that aired in March on the Lifetime cable channel, earning the actress an Emmy Award nomination.
"I actually was bowled over with that fact they were going to do a movie. I didn't think it was possible," recalled Tyson. "I personally couldn't begin to fathom how I would take this character, who was massive for the theater, and bring it down to the small screen."
The movie was shot in just 15 days after the Broadway run. "Fifteen days! I didn't really feel it at the time," she recalled. "When you're that focused on something, you don't feel the length of time. You feel sometimes how grueling it is. But you don't think in terms of hours."
The actress was seated in an office across the hall from a rehearsal room where, later in the day, she would once again pick up the mantle of Carrie Watts, the elderly protagonist of "Bountiful" whose desire to return to her childhood home sets the play in motion.
Though thin and small-framed, Tyson has a noble presence — angular cheekbones, steady eyes and a calm, confident poise. She began the interview speaking quietly with deliberate pauses but soon shifted into a more animated gear as she reminisced about her career.
A question about her decision to return to Broadway after a 30-year absence provoked a chuckle.
"I didn't know upstage from downstage! I had forgotten it," she said. "I had been so involved in television and movies, that's where my focus was. And so I was really hesitant."
But the prospect of playing Carrie Watts proved irresistible. The actress said she first encountered "Bountiful" when she saw the 1985 movie adaptation starring Geraldine Page. "I was living here [L.A.] at the time. I was wandering around Hollywood and I saw her name on the marquee, and I went in simply because of her name, because I was a big fan of hers," Tyson said.
"I was absolutely in awe. I left and went immediately to my then agent, and I said, 'You get me my 'Trip to Bountiful' and I will retire.'"
Nothing came of it, despite Tyson's repeated entreaties. "He paid no attention to it whatsoever," she said.
More than two decades later, Hallie Foote, daughter of the late playwright, was looking to cast a revival of "Bountiful" with black actors in the lead roles. Foote recalled in a separate interview that she had admired a 2011 production of "Bountiful" featuring black actors in a production at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md.
"That production made me think that we could do the play on Broadway with a black cast," she said.
Foote arranged for a meeting with Tyson in New York to propose to project. The actress recalled being shocked.
"I asked, 'Who's your father?' And she said, 'Horton Foote.' And I said, 'The play you're talking about?' And she said, 'Trip to Bountiful.' And I fell off the chair. I literally fell off the chair. I was stunned."
Tyson added: "My mother always said if you live long enough, you'll see everything. And she's right."
A family gathers
On a rehearsal set made to look like a cramped city apartment, Tyson greeted actress Vanessa Williams with a lengthy hug. They had costarred in the Broadway run of "Bountiful" last year and in the TV movie.
Within minutes, though, both actresses were in character and at each others' throats. As the haughty daughter-in-law, Williams played a scene in which she and Tyson cross swords over a perceived slight.
Blair Underwood, playing Tyson's soft-spoken son, tried to placate them but to little avail. Underwood has worked with Tyson several times and has played her son or grandson on screen.
"We literally now have 20 years of history," the actor said by phone. "There's a chemistry and immediacy. I call her Mama now."
When asked how Tyson has changed over the years, he paused and said, "Well, I just found out she does 60 push-ups every morning. Six-zero. I feel very inadequate."
The role of Carrie Watts is a physically demanding one, requiring the actress to be on stage for nearly the entire play. Michael Wilson, the director of "Bountiful," said Tyson didn't miss a performance during the play's six-month run in New York. But it wasn't always easy going for the actress, especially during rehearsals, he said.
"We all knew stamina and endurance would be an issue," Wilson said. "We had to have frank conversations."
He said the first run-through of the play took eight hours. The next try took four hours, and they eventually got it down to the play's two-hour running time.
Tyson recalled: "The moments I was about to fall apart, Michael Wilson would find a way to move something else into that spot until I was able to get myself back together."
"Bountiful" won't be the first time that Tyson has performed theater in L.A. The actress appeared in a one-night performance of Jean Genet's "The Blacks" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1970.
Tyson had been a part of the play's New York ensemble, and the Taper performance was a benefit for the Mafundi Institute of Watts. "It went so incredibly well that the producers ran all over L.A. to find a house so that we could have a run out of that. But they couldn't find one," she recalled.
It was shortly thereafter that Tyson shot to fame for her performance in Martin Ritt's "Sounder," for which she received an Academy Award nomination. The actress recalled that the filmmakers wanted her for a supporting role, but she held out for the bigger role of Rebecca, the matriarch of a sharecropping family. "
She earned yet more accolades for her title role in the 1974 TV movie "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," earning two Emmys for her portrayal of the 110-year-old protagonist who lives through slavery and the civil rights movement.
The long, eventful journey
Tyson's Hollywood fame was a world away from her modest Harlem upbringing. Her mother, who hailed from the Caribbean island of Nevis, strongly disapproved of a career in show business, and Tyson worked for a period as a typist and later as a model.
In the interview, Tyson didn't divulge much about her personal life. She spoke briefly of her marriage in the '80s to jazz musician Miles Davis, during which she lived in Malibu. (The couple eventually divorced, and Davis died in 1991.) "It took me two years before I could come back here [to L.A.]," she said. But "I knew that I really couldn't live here anymore."
Perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of Tyson is her age. Reports have long stated that she was born in 1933, which would make her around 80. But last year, the New York Times reported Tyson's age as being nine years older than previously thought. Voter registration for New York lists Tyson's date of birth as December 1924, which would make her 89.
Tyson said that working on "Bountiful" during the past two years has been invigorating. "It's nothing that I really dreamed would happen at this stage in my life or my career," she said. "You know you're on the wane. But I'm revitalized and I have a whole new career."
After L.A., the production will move to Boston. "I understand there's a possibility we may go to London," she said, sounding both awed and overwhelmed. (Hallie Foote and Michael Wilson confirmed that there have been conversations, but nothing official has been announced.)
Tyson said she hopes the character of Carrie Watts will speak strongly to younger people in the audience.
"I think, if nothing else, for me it's important that young people recognize the value of the elders in their lives and to take advantage of their presence while they are still there."