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Blair Underwood on Cicely Tyson's 'Legacy of Excellence' (Exclusive)

“What made her great is her tenacity, her persistence, her drive, her love of life. She lived life, she lived life out loud, [and] she did it boldly.” That is how Blair Underwood remembers the late Cicely Tyson.

ET’s Kevin Frazier chatted with the 2020 Tony nominee about working with the icon, who died on Thursday at the age of 96, and the lesson he learned from her.

“Her whole sense of life was about taking a bite out of it, making a statement, being bold and being unapologetic,” Underwood, 56, continued. “And that’s one of the things I learned from her.”

“My biggest lesson from her was, love life, take care of yourself,” he added. “She was a vegan since the 1960s, around the time she was married to Miles Davis, and she said, ‘Just be careful what you put inside your body. You’ll last longer.’ So I learned a lot from her about the craft, the art of acting, the work, but also how to live life, how to walk through life.”

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Underwood and Tyson worked together on multiple occasions, including Heat Wave, Mama Flora’s Family and The Trip to Bountiful.

The actor recalled a touching moment on the set of Heat Wave, about the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles Watts districts, where he was “exhausted and emotionally drained,” yet Tyson helped him go on with the scene.

“James Earl Jones had just been shot and he was dying in my arms, and I played [Tyson’s] grandson and she was watching all during the riots. And I was exhausted. I was emotionally drained and I could not bring up those tears and those emotions,” Underwood remembered. “And she looked at me, she said, ‘Come here.’ And all she did between takes is she just put her arms around me and hugged me and just held me for about a minute.”

“And Kevin Hooks is directing. He said, ‘Take your time.’ And I just welled up with the emotions I needed for that scene. And she just tapped me on the shoulder and she said, ‘Come on baby’ and then we got that shot,” he continued. “So she was always there as that mentor, that maternal figure, and just the ultimate exemplar of professionalism and grace and elegance and beauty and all of that.”

He also shared how she loved to document everything and was brought a camera to set to take photos of everyone.

Gayle King Emotionally Reflects on the Late Cicely Tyson’s Life (Exclusive)

Gayle King Emotionally Reflects on the Late Cicely Tyson’s Life (Exclusive)

Having worked with Tyson for over a span of about 25 years, Underwood was in awe of the actress’ ability to “never stop living” and “never stop creating.”

“There was such a sense of…gratitude. Such an incredible and profound sense of gratitude that she had done the work, when I spoke before about her professionalism and focusing on getting it done and getting it done with excellence,” he reflected. “When she won the Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful in her late 80s, early 90s, it was a second, maybe third, act for her in the public eye.”

“But she never stopped living, never stopped creating, never stopped thinking and teaching,” he marveled. “She had her own school in New Jersey, thinking about the next generation and the next generation. She was always very vital…It was in this time, in the last several years, that she received her honorary Academy Award, which she should have gotten so many years ago.”

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As for what legacy Tyson leaves behind, Underwood simply put it as “excellence.”

“The legacy of Cicely Tyson was that she was a trailblazer. She came along when she did in the ’50s and the ’60s with her contemporaries, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and then broke barriers for artists of color and also for women,” he noted. “Miss Tyson did and she did it with aplomb and she did it with strength and she did it with foresight and vision. Her legacy is that of excellence.”

See more touching tributes from Tyson’s former co-stars and friends in the video below.

Cicely Tyson Dead at 96: Her Famous Friends Pay Tribute to the Trailblazing Icon (Exclusive)

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