Tommy “Tiny” Lister, the hulkish character actor whose pro-wrestler frame and menacing onscreen disposition highlighted the first two Friday films, Jackie Brown, The Fifth Element, and more than 200 other movies, died Thursday at the age of 62. His manager, Cindy Cowan, confirmed the actor’s death to Variety. A cause of death was not immediately known, but Cowan told Variety that he was found unresponsive in his Los Angeles apartment “after displaying symptoms of Covid-19 in recent days.” Cowan said Lister had been diagnosed with Covid-19 earlier this year.
“Deputies were initially called to the home for a welfare check after associates of Lister said they had not heard from him since the night before,” CBS Los Angeles reports. “When they made entry into the home, they found Lister dead inside.” Authorities added they believe Lister died of natural causes.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound actor’s range spanned from President Lindberg in The Fifth Element to Adam Sandler’s brother in Little Nicky to Zeus in 1989’s No Holds Barred. The latter film, financed by the WWE, was ostensibly a vehicle for Hulk Hogan to break into acting. But Lister’s role as the wrestling heel to Hogan’s protagonist became the film’s most memorable part. His acting extended beyond the silver screen into two stints as an actual pro wrestler, with Lister (billed as Zeus: The Human Wrecking Machine) and Hogan continuing their cinematic feud at multiple WWE events.
But it was his role as the neighborhood bully Deebo in 1995’s Friday and 2000’s Next Friday that made Lister a star. “When me and Ice Cube sat in his motorhome, we were watching the dailies and … we knew Friday was gonna make a lot of noise,” Lister told DJ Vlad in 2015. The series would go on to become stoner cult classics and make Lister a beloved, if intimidating, actor.
“RIP Tiny ‘Deebo’ Lister,” Ice Cube wrote on Twitter. “America’s favorite bully was a born entertainer who would pop into character at the drop of a hat terrifying people on and off camera. Followed by a big smile and laugh. Thank you for being a good dude at heart. I miss you already.”
“I lost another very close friend yesterday,” Ice-T wrote on Twitter. “My homie Tiny Lister passed away…. I’m speechless. We did many films together and were close personal friends.”
Thomas Lister Jr. was born June 24th, 1958, in Compton, California. He was born blind in one eye due to a detached retina and noted in a 2014 interview with Grantland that he was once ashamed of his eye and wore tinted glasses before seeing his birth defect as an asset. “I started doing these movies, and God said, ‘You thought it was a curse. It was a blessing,’” he said. “[My eye] became my trademark in Hollywood.”
A remarkable athlete in college, Lister first married his athletic ability with desire to entertain as a wrestler (he appeared as both Zeus and, briefly, Z-Gangsta throughout his wrestling career) before making his onscreen debut in 1985’s Runaway Train. Small roles in Armed and Dangerous, 8 Million Ways to Die, and Beverly Hills Cop II followed before a regular stint as Otis in the HBO football comedy 1st and Ten.
“He can go from that innocent look to absolute danger in a blink of an eye,” Eric Roberts, Lister’s co-star in four films, told Grantland. “When he looks angry, you feel anger.”
Lister continued to steadily work in the 1990s and 2000s in films like Posse, Don Juan DeMarco, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Players Club, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Confidence, The Dark Knight, and Zootopia. He also became a semi-regular appearance in music videos, showing up in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” Sublime’s “Santeria,” and clips by 50 Cent, French Montana, Chamillionaire, Iggy Azalea, and Akon.
“He has such a good, positive spirit,” director Walter Hill, who worked with Lister on multiple films, added to Grantland. “This discovery that this big, strong fella is actually sweet and friendly just makes you like him and brings about a very positive feeling.”