Tom “Tiny” Lister Jr. has died. Although he gained some acclaim from a short-lived wrestling career in the WWF in the early 1990s, Lister was best known as an actor, contributing his unforgettable physical presence to literally hundreds of TV shows and movies across a 30-plus-year career. As the villainous Deebo in the Friday films, the no-nonsense president in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, and a nameless, noble prisoner in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Lister intimidated, elevated, and impressed in equal parts. Per Variety, he died today after reportedly displaying symptoms of COVID-19. Lister was 62.
Born in Compton, California, Lister went to college on an athletic scholarship, becoming a star shotput thrower for California State University. After a brief attempt at a football career, he pivoted into acting, where his 6'5", 300-pound physique quickly earned him a number of small (but also very large) parts in a variety of shows and films in the mid-1980s. His first big shot at national exposure came in 1989, though, when he was cast as the antagonistic Zeus in Hulk Hogan’s No Holds Barred, a role that also led to him appearing in actual WWF events. (The wrestling promotion produced the movie, and helped push Lister’s heel angle.)
Lister’s real break, though, came in 1995, when F. Gary Gray cast him as Deebo in the first Friday. Unforgettable from pretty much the first moment he comes pedaling onto the scene, Deebo presents a larger-than-life opponent for Ice Cube’s Craig and Chris Tucker’s Smokey to overcome; it is, to say the least, credible when Deebo physically intimidates the pair into following his every whim or handing over their cash. Lister reprised the role for 2000's Next Friday, capitalizing on the original film’s cult success.
And in the meantime, well: Lister worked. His 200-plus-role resumé is a laundry list of small roles made much harder to forget by the man performing them: A Klingon in Star Trek: Enterprise here, a brief turn on Nash Bridges there, a major role as one of the demonic brothers in Little Nicky over there. (His political role as “Galactic President” in The Fifth Element might not be entirely clear, but the gravitas he brought to the part certainly was.) And that’s the point: It’s not that Lister was big, or that he had an intriguing face. (He was born with a detached retina in his right eye, giving his gaze a distinctive mien.) It’s that he was able to project certainty in a way few other actors could, and practically never with so few words.
All of which brings us to The Dark Knight, and one of the most memorable (if small) roles in Christopher Nolan’s entire superhero trilogy. As the prisoner who rejects the Joker’s attempt to turn a ferry full of Gotham City inmates into one of his sick social experiments, Lister’s character—identified only as “Tattooed Prisoner”—stands right at the heart of Nolan’s film. Intentionally invoking the “scary black man” tropes that unfortunately defined what could and should have been a far more varied career, Lister projects calm—even a bit of seduction—into the request for the prison officials to hand over the deadly remote. And then the real performance comes through just as powerfully, as he calmly chucks the device through the window, weary contempt visible on his face. It’s a small performance, a blip in a movie that stretches to sometimes histrionic heights. But like the man giving it, it was also deceptively huge.
Lister continued to work, consistently, for the rest of his life, with his long list of credits running right up to projects filmed or announced this year. (Not even a brief bout of legal trouble, after he pled guilty to committing conspiracy to commit mortgage fraud in 2012, seems to have slowed him down much.) The Human Centipede 3, Zootopia, Comedy Bang! Bang!—if you needed someone who could look intimidating (but not just look intimidating), then Tiny Lister was a man you could always turn to.
Lister’s manager confirmed his death earlier today.