Taking a Shot at Films : Cal State L.A. shotput title-holder Tommie Lister Jr. transferred his athletic success to pro wrestling--and now acting.
Tommie Lister Jr. no doubt is remembered by professional wrestling fans as Zeus, a homicidal maniac who challenged Hulk Hogan to a match with no rules in the 1989 film “No Holds Barred.”
He wrestled in “SummerSlam” that year. Lister also joined Randy (Macho Man) Savage in a tag-team match against Hogan and Brutus (The Barber) Beefcake in a pay-per-view special.
Then the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Lister dropped out of the World Wrestling Federation scene. Lister sold his Harbor City home to move to Atlanta in 1990 and left the name Zeus behind--on the bottom of his swimming pool, to be exact-- and resurfaced in TV and movie roles with the nickname “Tiny.”
Some might think that Lister’s work in the big-screen shoot-'em-ups aren’t much different from the theatrical escapades of professional wrestling. But Lister’s road to success started long before the WWF.
Lister, 35, was the 1982 NCAA Division II shotput champion at Cal State Los Angeles, where he still holds the school record of 61 feet, 8 inches.
“Track and field will always be my first love,” Lister said. “Winning the national championship means more to me than anything I have or will do. It was my first claim to success.”
Lister improved to 64-3 in 1983, competing for the Converse Track Club, but gave up track in 1984 to try his hand in football with the New Orleans Breakers of the now-defunct United States Football League despite having no organized football experience.
In the interim, Lister, a business major, began receiving small roles in commercials through contacts with agents he met while working as a bouncer at the nightclub Imperial Gardens.
“First, it was Bubba Smith. Then came the Mr. T era,” said Lister, who has been blind in his right eye since birth. “I was the next one to come along. My eye made me distinctive and became my trademark. I went to an audition and got the part. Then I kept going and going and getting the parts.”
The Breakers cut Lister after two exhibition games but offered him a spot on the practice squad.
Instead, Lister opted for acting.
“Who needed football and getting beat up?” he said. “I made $100,000 my first year making movies without getting hurt. With the little common sense I had left, I figured I should become an actor.”
Lister now has 21 film credits. He was a regular on HBO’s “1st & Ten” series and has guest-starred on “Webster,” “Matlock” and the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” He also had a cameo with Eddie Murphy on Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video.
Last year Lister co-starred with Mario Van Peebles and Tone Loc in the Western “Posse.” In “Men at War,” which finished filming in Thailand and is scheduled for a fall release, Lister plays an evil mercenary named Blades.
“If you think Zeus was bad, Blades is like his twin brother, but twice as bad,” Lister said. “The kids are going to love it.”
Lister’s athletic career, however, didn’t blossom as quickly as his one in acting.
He competed in track for three seasons at Compton High School but never won a league championship or advanced to the Southern Section finals.
Lister, who weighed 250 pounds during his shotputting days, attended Palomar Junior College for a year but didn’t qualify for postseason competition. He transferred to Long Beach City College in 1979 for his sophomore year.
“He was so huge we called him the Hulk,” said Virgil Torrence, 34, a sprinter and roommate of Lister’s at Long Beach. “He would growl and do Incredible Hulk imitations. He is really friendly and easygoing, but he can be almost intimidating when he is goofing around. He always had a little acting ability.”
At Long Beach, Lister also showed his first signs of athletic promise, recording a mark of 52-0 in the shotput. He qualified for the Southern California finals and earned a scholarship to Cal State L.A. There he increased his best to 53-9 his junior year. He finished sixth in the California College Athletic Assn. championships that year but was plagued by a mysterious 30-pound weight loss.
Lister received a diagnosis of kidney stones and infected tonsils. He had surgery, was hospitalized for three weeks and forced to sit out the 1981 season.
“I was always a milk freak and developed calcium deposits in my bladder because I never drank any water,” Lister said. “When I got well, I knew I was going to break the school record.”
That he did--by nearly six feet and winning a national title. Lister is the only Cal State L.A. shotputter ever to surpass 60 feet.
“It was only a matter of time before he reached that kind of level,” Long Beach Coach Ron Allice said. “When he came to Long Beach, he was a real novice and that was his first real year of throwing. His potential was untapped.”
Lister also conceded that his fascination with Westerns wasn’t conducive to top performances on the track: “I’m a TV fanatic. I was always late to practice because I was watching ‘The Rifleman’ and ‘Bonanza.’ ”
Lister said he still watches movies well past midnight most nights. But he also finds time to give motivational talks to youth groups in Georgia with his friend Deion Sanders of the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons. He also visits Allice to give inspirational speeches to the Long Beach track team.
Lister, who plans to move back to Southern California in the near future, said he yearns to return to Cal State L.A. someday to teach drama or coach track.
“Everything started there,” Lister said. “I got my first big break for exposure because people there believed in me and gave me a chance to develop. I would love to wear a Cal State L.A. jacket wherever I go around the world. I’m just a big kid who got lucky beyond his wildest dreams, but I am very, very proud of where I’m from.”