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Matriarchal Roots

November 08, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a few days before "Roots" author Alex Haley died in 1992, he had a conversation with actress Cicely Tyson's manager. At the end of the discussion, Haley said to him: "Tell Cicely that I love her and I have something for her."

"That Monday morning I walked into a shop I frequent," Tyson recalls, "and [the sales clerks] greeted me with, 'Did you hear what happened to Alex Haley? He died.' Needless to say, it just took my breath away. I never heard anymore about what it was that he had for me."

Until last year, when her manager was at a party with producer-director Jon Avnet, whom Tyson worked with on the 1991 film, "Fried Green Tomatoes," and the TNT movie, "Heat Wave." Avnet said cryptically that he, too, had "something for Cicely."

"I couldn't imagine what it was," says the three-time Emmy Award-winning star of such acclaimed TV projects as "Roots," "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," "A Woman Called Moses" and "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."

"I certainly didn't begin to suspect it would be this absolutely incredible, beautiful woman," says Tyson, an ageless 64.

As fate would have it, the project Avnet wanted Tyson for was the same one Haley was talking about before his death: "Mama Flora's Family," a 4-hour CBS drama about an African American matriarch of modest means, who, through love, strength and her love of God, guides three generations of her family through the ever-changing landscape of the black experience in America.

"Mama Flora's Family," which premieres Sunday and continues Tuesday on CBS, was directed by Peter Werner and adapted from the soon-to-be-released novel by Haley and David Stevens, based on a story by Haley, Avnet and his partner Jordan Kerner. Blair Underwood, Queen Latifah and Mario Van Peebles also star.

Flora, Tyson relates, is based on Haley's own mother. As soon as she read the script, she recalls, "I said, 'When do I start?' The rest is [history]. It was just overwhelming, to say the least."

Avnet says it was an absolute "no-brainer" decision to cast Tyson as Mama Flora. "Wait until you see her in this," proclaims the producer, who first discussed the prospect of doing a multi-generational saga about a black mother with Haley in the early '80s.

"I think she's one of the best actresses in the world," Avnet says. "I think I'm able to say that because I have worked with a number of them. So it's not a frivolous remark on my part."

The actress, he says, "got into character very quickly. It was a wonderful thing to watch. There is some stuff [in the character] that comes right out of her mom. There are certain lines [based on her mother's sayings] in it."

Tyson's mother, a native of the Caribbean island of Nevis, worked as a domestic in New York City. Her father operated a pushcart. "I try to incorporate something of one or another of my parents in whatever I am doing," says Tyson, over the phone from the set of her latest film, HBO's "Before I Lay Dying."

One of her mother's expressions fit perfectly in "Mama Flora's Family" in a scene in which she is trying to teach her granddaughter Diana (Queen Latifah) how to chop wood.

"Diana is having a difficult time and she takes the ax away from her and proceeds to show her how to do it," Tyson says. "She passes this remark: 'People go to school to get educated and leave common sense below,' [meaning], you are so educated, but yet if somebody asks you to boil a pot of water, you don't know how to turn the faucet on."

Tyson becomes so immersed in her roles, she insists on being called by her characters' names on set. "That is the only way [I can work]," she explains. They tease me all the time. When I say they tease me, I mean the people who are close to me; if I say something, they say, 'That's Flora [talking]. That's not her.' But that's the only way I can function."

Avnet recalls one such instance during production last summer. "We were shooting down in Georgia and there are these little stairs at [Flora's] house," Avnet says. "She is walking like Mama Flora--really slowly. So I take her hand and walk her up and down the stairs. I said to one of the producers, 'Will you please make sure she doesn't trip down the stairs? Be careful with her.'

"We do the scene and at the end of the day, I see her sort of skipping down the stairs--and I think 'That's Cicely.' I was so taken in. That's just the way she is."

Tyson describes her career as blessed, which is something of an understatement. Besides her enormous success in TV movies and miniseries, she received a best actress nomination for her role as yet another memorable mother in 1972's "Sounder." She was also the first African American actress to have a leading role in a drama when she appeared in the 1963-64 CBS series, "East Side, West Side."

"I waited for [those roles]," Tyson says. "It was worth it. I would do it all over again. Yes, absolutely. I am so blessed."

"Mama Flora's Family" airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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