Even when he isn’t making a movie, Tiny Lister usually plays the bad guy. As a paid spokesperson for Monster Energy Drink, Lister works corporate events on weekends, and when he’s on the clock, he appears as Deebo, his signature character from the Friday franchise. Deebo is Lister’s Hamlet, his Sherlock Holmes, his artistic avatar. “It’s always that character,” he says of the neighborhood bully who first terrorized Ice Cube and Chris Tucker in the original 1995 comedy. “That’s what they pay to see.”
I meet Lister in April outside MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on the afternoon of the Monster Energy Supercross. Fifty-five years old, he trudges through the crowd gingerly, landing flat-footed with each step. He wears black slippers with white sweat socks, a black long-sleeve thermal and black sweatpants, both emblazoned with the puke-green Monster logo. A diamond Monster medallion dangles at his chest. He is unlike any movie star — 6-foot-5, 285 pounds with a bald, angular head and mammoth hands, a fearsome titan in a land of mini Ken dolls. Then there’s the eye. It’s not as cross-eyed as it appears on film. Lister’s right eye, in which he is blind, is cloudy and it droops.
His look isn’t complete until he climbs aboard a beach cruiser, the bike Deebo rides in Friday; however, this one is painted black and that Monster green. Ominous theme music feels like it should be playing as he pedals slowly toward the Pit Party, where a tire-changing contest has lured fans. Jaws is swimming toward the shore. “Ay!” Lister barks at a couple holding hands crossing in front of the bike. “Ay, move!” Tiny Lister is now acting.1
Imagine Billy Zabka in a Cobra Kai karate gi patrolling a parking lot, spouting catchphrases and answering to “Johnny” while bullying twerps. Now consider the absurdity of the scene.
Upon entering the Pit Party, Lister, donning a wireless microphone, tries to pump up the crowd. “Oh, shit, it’s Deebo!” someone inside the scrum hollers.
“Ay, ay, give it up for the pit crew,” Lister bellows. His voice is a guttural croak. Like Deebo, whenever he raises his voice, Lister sounds as if he’s just snacked on a few rusty nails. “Give it up,” he continues, “or I’m gonna choke you out, fool. You gonna have me on TMZ.” The performance continues for 10 minutes, until Lister retreats near a trailer.
“Man, I’m tired,” he says off mic, revealing a toothy smile, the beads of sweat rolling down his brow. Then he takes a swig from a can of sugar-free Monster Ultra Red.
Playing the bad guy wasn’t always this easy — Lister says he received death threats when he wrestled as Zeus, a character he originated in the 1989 film No Holds Barred. But it came naturally. “He can go from that innocent look to absolute danger in a blink of an eye,” says Eric Roberts, Lister’s costar in four films. “When he looks angry, you feel anger.” As a result of that skill, Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr. has carved out a weird, remarkable career — 30 years long this year, 176 acting credits in all, with work alongside icons like Marlon Brando,2 Tupac Shakur,3 Hulk Hogan, and Michael Jackson.4
Lister on working with Brando in the 1994 movie Don Juan DeMarco: “He hit me in the stomach and said, ‘I heard you are Zeus, this big badass from wrestling.’ We became real good friends.”
“I used to go to a hotel on La Cienega and he would kick the girl out of bed so we could read scripts together — once it was a John Sayles script.” Lister acted alongside Shakur in 1997’s Gang Related.
“You knew you were working with the greatest entertainer on earth,” Lister says of his time on the set of “Remember the Time.” “This is how [Michael] said hello to me: I was in my motor home watching a Western. The door opens and someone had put a stink bomb in my trailer that smelled like a rotten egg.”
God, he believes, had something to do with making him one of Hollywood’s go-to heavies. Born blind with a detached and deformed retina, Lister was once ashamed of his right eye. He wore tinted glasses. He even cursed God. Then one day he stopped hiding and took off the shades. “I started doing these movies and God said, ‘You thought it was a curse. It was a blessing,’” he says. “[My eye] became my trademark in Hollywood.”
His other calling card: Lister is a gentle giant known for being the friendliest guy on set, a welcome collaborator. “He has such a good, positive spirit,” says Walter Hill, the director of 48 Hrs. and The Warriors, who gave Lister his big break, casting him in 1986’s Blue City and later directing him in Extreme Prejudice and Trespass. “This discovery that this big, strong fella is actually sweet and friendly just makes you like him and brings about a very positive feeling.”
It was shocking, then, in August 2012 when Tiny Lister pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for his role in a $3.8 million mortgage fraud scam. Currently out on bail, Lister is confident he will avoid prison time. “What’s so cool about God and our government is that you can make a mistake and they will forgive you if you just a good person and doing right,” he says. “Everybody who saw my situation saw I was good.” There’s more to it than that. Lister believes this ordeal, like his birth defect, like his career, happened for a reason.
Lister subscribes to a worldview with room for concepts like divine paths and prophecies. He had loftier ambitions than a 9-to-5 after college, to the point of delusion. Despite never playing football growing up, Lister futilely tried out for the New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League in 1984. And even with a discernible disability, he dreamed of protecting the president as a Secret Service agent. He never made it to the NFL, or to Washington. But Lister did make it to Hollywood. He first met Walter Hill at the Los Angeles nightclub Imperial Gardens, where he worked as a bouncer.
Lister then decided to give acting a shot. One of his workout buddies at the time was Jimmy Bridges Jr., brother of Todd Bridges of Diff’rent Strokes fame and, more significantly, the son of an agent. “He’d be like, ‘Introduce me to your dad, man. Introduce me to your dad. I want to be an actor.’ After a while I was like, ‘Come on, man, let’s go meet him,’” Bridges remembers. “He was 6-5, 275, with a lopsided eye. My dad was like, ‘I can do something with him.’”
A slew of henchman roles followed until No Holds Barred, the Hulk Hogan vehicle that answered the question: What if Ed Wood were still alive and made a film about professional wrestling? Lister nailed the audition, arriving in character as Hogan’s rival, Zeus, a psycho ex-con with a Z shaved into his head and an Anthony Davis–esque unibrow. He had only a handful of lines in the film, with most of his screen time dedicated to beatdowns and wild mugging — but considering his primary objective was terrifying the target audience of 9-year-old Hulkamaniacs, the performance is iconic in its precision.
To appear as a threat to the similarly enormous Hogan, Lister bulked up to 305 pounds. But no amount of muscle could protect him when, while filming the climactic fight scene, Hogan broke Lister’s nose. “Man, I caught Tiny. I don’t know if I was tired or overzealous, but I just splattered his nose.5 I was apologizing, afraid to God he would kill me, but he was way cool about it,” Hogan says. “We had this thing we would say to each other, ‘Free James Brown,’ if he squeezed me too tight or I was squeezing him too tight. We both loved James Brown’s music so, if he was choking me too tight or I was choking him too tight, we’d say, ‘Free James Brown,’ which would make us laugh so we could loosen up. When I hit his nose, he goes, ‘I thought you loved me. What about James Brown?'”6
Here is Hulk Hogan on the art of throwing the perfect fake punch: “[In wrestling], a lot of guys throw punches to the shoulder. Then there are guys like Triple H and Randy Orton, who are really good at throwing punches directly between the eyes to the forehead. I prided myself on being the first guy to throw a perfect punch. Even Stallone freaked out when I played Thunderlips [in Rocky III]. I threw the first punch and went right between the eyes, and he freaked out even though I barely touched him. It was like a feather once you get your coordination and timing down. So I always prided myself on being the best guy throwing that straight-into-the-face punch.”
In case you missed it: Hulk Hogan and Tiny Lister’s safe word was “Free James Brown.”
While No Holds Barred flopped at the box office and was ravaged by critics — Roger Ebert called it “a disgusting film” — it provided a built-in angle for a main-event feud in the World Wrestling Federation. A few weeks before the film debuted, Lister appeared on WWF programming as Zeus, the No Holds Barred character, claiming that Hogan had prevailed in the movie only because the fight was staged. It was meta before meta. The Hogan-Zeus program main-evented three WWF pay-per-views in 1989.
At first, Lister wasn’t interested in wrestling. “I ain’t really into putting my hand up in between some dude’s legs,” he says today. The money, however, towed him into the ring. Nearly 25 years later, Lister can recite the exact paydays: $56,000 for SummerSlam, $17,000 for Saturday Night’s Main Event, $40,000 for No Holds Barred: The Match, and $35,000 for Survivor Series.7 “Vince McMahon was a great negotiator,” Lister says. “He would already wire the money into my account before he even started [negotiating]. Who’s going to say no? You’re going to take 56,000 out of your checking account?”
He wrestled sporadically after leaving the WWF, earning $22,000 in 1990 for wrestling Abdullah the Butcher in Puerto Rico and $17,000 for a one-shot deal with World Championship Wrestling in 1996.
Lister’s wrestling sojourn didn’t damage his status in Hollywood — in fact, it led to the defining role of his career. When casting the South Central L.A.–based comedy Friday, Jaki Brown sought a Goliath for the neighborhood tough Deebo. “Ninety-eight percent of the people we saw for Deebo were football players, really gigantic football players. They all thought they were actors but none of them could do it,” says Brown, a veteran casting director. “Since [Deebo] had to be so big, we talked about wrestlers. Tiny’s name came up and it was like, ‘Wow, he’d be perfect.’”
There’s a chilling nihilism to Deebo, from his indiscriminate hit list — neighbors, women, old men — to how he dictates through ruthless intimidation, calmly seething, almost nudging his victim until he gets his way, the threat of horrific you-got-knocked-the-fuck-out violence always lurking as his backup plan. A breezy stoner comedy for the most part, Friday almost sobers up whenever Deebo emerges; his presence adds real stakes to a film that otherwise could’ve gone the way of Dude, Where’s My Car?
A brute like Deebo could have only originated in a place like Compton, and Lister drew upon his own experiences, specifically modeling the character after local Rollin’ 60s Crips leader Eugene “Big U” Henley.8 “Big U taught me that he imposed his will on the subject and he was relentless,” Lister says. “I grew up in that element, and so I mimicked it.”
After serving 13 years in prison, Henley is now a music event promoter; CEO of Developing Options, a community group dedicated to empowering youth; and a cofounder of Uneek Social Media, an online marketing group.
Though his formative years preceded the 1980s crack boom that transformed Compton into one of America’s failed states, Lister says he dodged gangs, drug dealers, and shootouts while growing up. There were bullies as well, like an older kid named Lawrence Adams, who would chase Lister home from school. One day in fourth grade, his mother shut the front door on her son, forcing him to confront his fears. Lister says he turned around, closed his eyes, and began swinging.
He later found solace in track and field. Shot put was his event. A loner by nature, Lister abhorred team sports, viewing them with contempt based off his almost objectivist principles — he thought it was unfair for the superstars when they had to cover for weaker teammates. “I love the shot put because you win or lose by yourself,” he says. “Either I get exposed or I dominate. I always dominated because I trained to dominate.” The hard work paid off at Cal State–Los Angeles, where Lister broke the school record seven times and became the 1982 Division II national shot put champion.9
Which was also where the nickname “Tiny” originated. “When I was in college, you would be a counselor and part of my scholarship was dealing with handicap kids in the summertime. You’d watch their reaction when they found out my name was Tiny and they’d see how big I am,” Lister says. “I was like, ‘Let me keep this nickname.’”
Lister beams with pride recounting his athletic accomplishments. We’re now backstage at the Monster Pit Party, sitting on shipping containers, watching the roadies unload equipment. A DJ nearby blasts an endless “Turn Down for What” remix. Every so often a fan approaches. Lister has dropped the Deebo act for now.
“Can I get a picture?”
“Yeah, where you from?”
“Clam chowder, Donnie and Mark Wahlberg.”
His mood turns once he begins addressing his family. Lister, the second of four children born to a truck driver and housewife,10 cut off contact with his immediate family about five years ago, after the birth of his daughter Faith Grace.11 The rift began 30 years ago, when Lister first began to pursue his acting career. “A lot of people didn’t believe in what I was doing. They said, ‘Get a real job,’” Lister says. “My father used to speak death on me. He would say, ‘You’ll never be nothing. You’re weak.’”
His grandmother was Lucille Ball’s maid.
He met his wife, Felicia, 10 years ago while on location in South Africa.
He’s reluctant to share details. “I made a decision that I think is best for me,” he says. “A lot of times you try and please your biological family and you can’t please them. I don’t care if you give them money, they want more money. After a while I stopped trying to please them. I said, ‘I’m tired of being pimped.’”
I ask if he still speaks to his mother, now a widow living in Texas. “She allowed my father to speak death on me, so I’m cool,” he says. “Watch me on TV, you know what I’m saying?”
The mortgage fraud scam is another delicate subject. The scheme, which ran from November 2005 to June 2007, was both convoluted and crude. Lister conspired with an accountant and other accomplices (a former mortgage loan officer, real estate agent, former bank manager, and former escrow officer) to fraudulently acquire four properties he couldn’t afford; he magnified his income on mortgage applications, fabricated bank statements, and falsified escrow records to trick lenders into thinking he made obligatory down payments. He then cashed out $1.146 million from the home equity lines of credit before defaulting on the four mortgages. As a result, banks lost another $2.6 million.
He accepts some of the blame. “I had some bad people in my life — bad managers, real estate people,” he says. “I should have took a stronger look at it. You live and learn. You get scar tissue and it makes you a better person in the end. I just want to be there for my daughter.”
I ask for specifics: Take a stronger look at what? “Just critique people harder,” he says.
Though conspiracy charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison, Lister, who cooperated fully with federal prosecutors, the IRS, and the FBI, anticipates he will have to owe restitution payments and perform community service. Sentencing is scheduled for January 26, 2015.
Once the rain begins falling at MetLife Stadium, Lister decides to cut his workday short and return to his hotel in nearby Hoboken. A Monster employee arranges for a taxi to collect us near will call. There’s one problem with the plan: Fans bombard Lister in the march out of the Pit Party. He keeps moving, elegantly dodging photo and autograph requests, and we eventually flag down a cab in the parking lot.
Our driver is clueless. Dangerous, even. After missing our exit, we edge toward the Lincoln Tunnel tollbooths. “Where are we going?” I shout.
“Shit,” says the driver. “It’s OK, it’s OK.” We make a hard left, plow over some traffic cones, and linger perpendicular to traffic in the median. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” he repeats, this time more calmly than before. He pats down the corners of his lush mustache with his right hand.
“It’s not OK,” Lister thunders from the backseat. “You’re paid to provide a service and you’re not providing it.” The driver quickly finds his way to Lister’s hotel.
Later, when the cab attempts to drop us off around the corner from the hotel, Lister rumbles again. “Ay, ay, does this place have a front entrance?” he says. “Drop me off in front of the front entrance. We paid for that. I’m a movie star, man.”
Now upstairs in his room, Lister is still fuming. “He’s a bad dude. He’s a bad guy. He’s not good at anything in life.” He takes off his shirt and settles into the couch. A tattoo of the Bible verse Luke 10:19 covers his massive left bicep. His stomach, a firm, protruding mass, is mesmerizingly spherical.
“I’m 55 years old,” Lister says. “I wear down.” He has type 2 diabetes. “Remember how I was when I got started? Look at me now. You saw how much energy I spent?” It’s been a long week. Prior to arriving in New Jersey, Lister was in Albuquerque shooting his latest film, Money Is King. Once again, he’s the bad guy.
“I think he has the tendency to get stereotyped, absolutely. I don’t think people realize that he can really act and he can really be a sensitive guy and he’s actually very funny,” says Jules Stewart, who directed Lister in the 2013 indie K-11, in which he played a child molester named Detroit. “I love that he just keeps going. That’s sort of the secret in Hollywood. A lot of people give up, and when you give up, you’re finished. Tommy keeps going because he keeps trying to convince people he can do other things, and when he’s allowed to do other things, people are always amazed.”
Lister’s résumé proves he’s not a one-note performer, more than just an intimidating bruiser. His comic timing is apparent in his turn as the president in Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi epic The Fifth Element.12 He says his best performance is Hegai, the royal eunuch, a mentor role of sorts, in the 2006 religious film One Night With the King. At this point in his career, he says a project must fulfill one of three criteria: a good script, a good director, or a good check — it’s that thinking that led to a memorable cameo in The Dark Knight, but also to a slew of direct-to-DVD and low-budget features. It’s an adjustment for Lister.
“Tiny Lister had strength and power and humor and he filled the space. He had a lot of command and presence. He came out of left field in a sense,” says Lucinda Syson, the film’s casting director. “He brought something different to the role. Instead of having someone mundane like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the president,’ he woke you up in a way.”
Recently he ran into problems on the set of the forthcoming The Human Centipede: Final Sequence; he even asked to be fired. “When I did Human Centipede III, they had to take all the homosexual stuff out. I couldn’t have it in no scene I was in,” Lister says. “I wanted them to take out anything I didn’t like. If there was another man naked in my scene, they took it out for me.”
He also didn’t like being at the end of the centipede. So he Deebo’d 13 his way to the front. “I’m getting all that waste? Oh, heck no,” Lister says. “I was real hard on them in that movie because I said, ‘You’re not going to mess up my brand for your brand.’” Tom Six, director of The Human Centipede trilogy, declined to comment for this story.14
Deebo (dee-bo), verb — to get one’s way through intimidation.
As did costar Eric Roberts. “I can’t say a word,” Roberts says. “I was talking a little bit too much about it in interviews and they told me to shut up.”
According to IMDb, Lister currently has eight projects in addition to the Human Centipede follow-up in production or development, but the long-rumored fourth Friday film is not one of them. “Last Friday has been written,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. We all want to do it, but Ice Cube is so successful he don’t need to do it. We’d all love to do it because it’s a huge paycheck. I would like to ride that bicycle one more time.”
Lister is now slumping into the couch. His good eye is nearly shut. Goo oozes from his right eye — I don’t point it out to him. It feels much later than 7 p.m. “Yeah, I’m whupped,” Lister says. “I’m gone. I’m about to doze off on your butt.”
“They can make a movie of your life,” I tell Lister when we talk on the phone a week later. Despite his remarkable life, Lister’s recent crime weighs heavy on his mind.
“Because of the redemption,” Lister says, before launching into a long, uninterrupted monologue marked with sniffles and sobs. “Everything is about redemption in the end.” He fills the next 25 minutes with examples of his penance. He visited prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola; reasoned with gang members in Tampa, some of whom, he remembers, were wired on crack, to lay down their guns; he rallied the troops at Dover Air Force Base, home to the nation’s largest military mortuary; and he urged kids at San Pedro High School in Los Angeles to strive for greatness, to “soar with the eagles and not be a chicken stuck in the mud.”
“I came there and started crying and I told them how God got me through everything,” Lister says. That’s when it hits him. He has this platform because of the crime he committed. Without the specter of mandatory community service looming, Lister wouldn’t be on the road nearly as much, sharing his story of how he escaped Compton, how he made mistakes, and how his faith (and his lawyers) helped him through it. “God will turn something negative into something positive … God was looking for a bigger playing field for me to tell everybody how gangster he is. That’s all he was doing. He was setting me up.”
Then, without warning, that deep voice begins to — it sounds like he’s almost squealing. For a moment I think he’s speaking in tongues. “I had cops put guns to my head when I was a kid and tell me, ‘Turn around, we don’t want to shoot you in the back,’” he cries. “Do you think I fear anything? Man, I had an asthma attack and lost half my energy at the nationals. I told God, I didn’t come here to be second. I came here to win. And God made me the national champion. God showed them a rose can come out of my city — a rose, an eagle! I seen the wonders of God, man! You think I fear anything?”
He regains his composure. Plus, he’s hungry. “You got to stop making me cry, man,” he sniffles. “I have to eat. I think I hit it out of the park with that one. I think you felt that, right?”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vibe, and Complex. Previously he wrote about Varsity Blues actor Ron Lester.
Illustration by Jungyeon Roh.