After news broke Thursday that Tommy “Tiny” Lister had passed away at age 62, the word “Deebo” began trending almost immediately. Of course it did. Lister’s performance as the South Central bully in 1995’s Friday is one of the iconic roles in Black cinema. But while that role may define his legacy, Lister had already established himself as an actor able to elevate the bully archetype far above a stock trope.
’80s babies knew Lister long before Deebo ever stole Red’s chain. He’d given us nightmares as Hulk Hogan’s foil in their 1989 movie No Holds Barred — a performance that crossed over onto actual WWE main events on Saturday nights. Lister’s role as Zeus was as one-dimensional as they come, but his intimidating power was apparent. You can’t overestimate what it took to seem able to take down Hulk Hogan at the height of Hulkamania — without speaking a word. That’s how devastating Lister’s presence was.
A good portrayal of a bully has to evolve into something that we feel like we can overcome — to the point that they’re almost lovable by the time the movie is over.
But it was his first-season appearance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that showed how Lister was born to play the bully. In the episode “72 Hours,” Will bets Carlton that he couldn’t last a weekend in a bad neighborhood. When Carlton shows up at the dilapidated Compton apartment Will has chosen, he meets Lister, muscles bulging out of his tank top. Tiny plays a bully who hems up Carlton for using “school words.” But as Carlton hardens, proving himself as the ultimate code-switcher, Lister warms to him.
He’s great throughout, but the biggest laugh of the show comes when Mrs. Banks arrives to pick up Carlton, and Lister stands up to her — physically as well as metaphorically. He towers over her with a menacing “wait a minute”; the moment Mrs. Banks checks him, though, he crumbles. Cowering on the couch, he spends the rest of the scene looking up at Mrs. Banks, the same sad puppy look on his face. And just like that, within about three scenes, Tiny transforms from dominating to defeated.
And that’s why we’ve loved him so much as a bully. Contrary to what we think about bullies in real life, portraying a bully requires vulnerability. We’re fascinated by bully roles because they represent obstacles we’ve all faced and challenges that still sometimes torment our memories. As much as we’ve been unable to get over the bullies from middle school or camps, we’ve also dreamed of the day we can knock them out, tell them off, or make them run home in tears and embarrassment. We want them to feel like they made us feel. A good portrayal of a bully has to bring us back to that frightening place, but also evolve into something that we feel like we can overcome — to the point that they’re almost lovable by the time the movie is over.
Tiny Lister’s gift was exactly that. He could go from the evilest man you’d ever seen to someone whose defeat felt both believable and attainable for the cinematic underdog. His performance as the intimidator is so legendary that the word “Deebo” has gone beyond a character’s name — it’s got verb status now. “He got Deebo’d” is part of the Black vernacular for someone who got punked and robbed of something that belonged to him. And it’s all because Lister played the role of the immovable object so realistically.
The real story of Friday is Craig (played by Ice Cube) becoming a man. Sure, he was grown, but he hadn’t quite ascertained what it meant to have responsibilities and drive. That story doesn’t get told without Lister’s Deebo, the hulking barricade to that self-actualization. Lister had to at once be someone who could intimidate Craig and Smokey, snatching jewelry and punching mailmen — and be vulnerable enough that you’d believe he could lose a fight to a guy six inches shorter.
That’s the line Tiny Lister walked through his career. He let us believe we could take on the insurmountable challenges in our lives. He allowed us to believe in ourselves and imagine that we could conquer our obstacles. Lister could have continued his career as he did in No Holds Barred and the WWE and had a fine career. But his vulnerability and nuance turned him from a serviceable actor to a legend.