Thomas Lister Jr. made a very small, some would even say tiny, part shine. While that’s not why he developed the nickname, “Tiny,” Lister carried that signature trait throughout his long and vibrant Hollywood career. Tiny parts, big impact.
I first saw him take on Terry “Hulk” Hogan in the 1989 cheeseball wrestling flick, “No Holds Barred.” If you’re wondering if the film is as bad as the title, stop wondering. It’s true, but it was the first time we got a look at this larger-than-life man. He had a grimace that would make Mr. T check underneath his bed, and a body that could have been constructed out of stainless steel. That was only the beginning, like Dolph Lundgren’s rise from underneath the ring in “Rocky IV.”
While most know Lister Jr. from the hilarious “Friday,” I remember him as the soft-spoken yet revered prisoner on the boat in “The Dark Knight.” The man whose face could tell a thousand stories was the one who made the pivotal decision to toss the detonator off the boat, putting his life and thousands of others in the rival boat transporting civilians next door. Playing someone who looks and sounds terrifying yet carried the beating heart of a human being who still had some integrity and compassion left, Lister Jr. thrived. It was hard to forget about Heath Ledger’s performance upon leaving the theater 12 summers ago, but I couldn’t get Lister Jr.’s higher-thinking inmate out of my head.
He did that in several other films, taking them over for small periods of time. Think about “The Fifth Element,” which showed off, even if only for a little while, his lighthearted and funny side. It was one of those rare times where Lister Jr. didn’t play a convict, henchman, or basic tough guy. He was the President of Luc Besson’s world, one inhabited by Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker, Milla Jovovich, and Gary Oldman. It was one of those moments where you knew he had made it.
While he had a handful of memorable film roles, Lister Jr. made his true dent on television, especially over the past 10-15 years. At the time of his death at the age of 62, Lister had six projects in post-production, two more filming, and a couple others that had been announced. He was in over 132 projects during his career. Proof that if you have a solid niche, your career will have legs.
I was saddened by his death, which is just the latest blow in a year that is happy to beat us to our knees until the very end of this month. You probably couldn’t place his name up there with the likes of Chadwick Boseman, but Lister left a dent during his time here. He packed a lot of life and work into his living before the clock stopped.
While the exact cause of death is still pending, Lister Jr. contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. He overcame the virus, but reportedly had trouble breathing late last week. According to his manager, Cindy Cowan, Lister Jr.’s condition quickly worsened over the span of a week. Cowan told CNN, “He couldn’t breathe and felt very weak.” This just makes me sad. A tower of a man possibly being cut down like a tree by a virus.
Thomas “Tiny” Lister never made it above the movie title on a poster marquee, but he stole scenes in big films. He was the big fella with a heart of gold. “Tiny” made movies, even some of the lesser quality projects, a little bigger.
The light may have gone out after 62 years, but he left plenty for us to savor.
Rest in peace, Deebo.