‘The match’ that lit Tommy Lister’s career

Hall of Fame athlete, actor gives thanks for opportunities at Cal State L.A.

Close up of Lister holding his 1982 NCAA championship ring.

In his 30-year entertainment career, Tommy “Tiny” Lister has played many roles.

He was Hollywood’s first black president (following in the footsteps of President James M. Rosser), as Lister likes to say.  He was Hulk Hogan’s wrestling opponent, Zeus. And he has been one of the premier go-to-guys for carrying out the roughest-toughest bad guy roles in more than 140 TV and film productions.

But the starring “role”—of which Lister is most proud—was his three-year stretch as a Cal State L.A. track and field student-athlete and 1982 NCAA Division II shot put champion, he said.

“Everyone knows that my track and field career, my time at Cal State L.A., is more important to me than my movie career, than working on multimillion dollar films or working with famous actors,” Lister said, proudly displaying his NCAA championship ring during a recent visit to campus. “It’s here that it all started for me.”

Lister, a Cal State L.A. Hall of Famer, performed with the University’s track and field team from 1981 to 1983. He was recruited to Cal State L.A. by Hall of Fame track and field coach Walt Williamson after being part of a championship track team at Long Beach City College. “(Williamson) told me that he was bringing me here to win conference and break the school record,” Lister said.

Well, Lister did that. He also brought home the NCAA Championship in the shot put in his second season. His record, still No. 2 on the CSULA all-time list, was for a distance of 61 feet 8 inches. Lister held the school’s top spot for the sport until 1997, when Tambj Wenj set a new record of 65 feet 1.25 inches.

“It was at Cal State L.A. that I first figured out that I could step into my purpose and destiny, and do great things,” said Lister. 

Growing up in the racially divided city of Compton, where many of the people around him struggled with drugs and gangs, colored Lister’s view of the world, he said. He stayed clear of many bad influences by devoting his time to track and Westerns, but Lister says he didn’t learn his most important lessons on life or discover who he was until he arrived at Cal State L.A.

“I learned how to be strong from a white man in a wheelchair (strength and conditioning coach Bob Wieland ’75). I learned that I could be a champion,” he added.

Also sticking with Lister from his Golden Eagle days is the nickname: “Tiny.” At 6 feet 5 inches and 300 pounds, Lister is anything but tiny. Coach Williamson, however, found it useful in raising a reaction out of Lister as well as laughter from a group of kids with disabilities being coached that summer. It was a hit, and the name has stuck.

“I knew that to be great, you need to have a humble name,” he said. It has also helped him to keep life in perspective when working alongside renowned actors, such as Marlon Brando, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger and Peter O’Toole, he said.

Since leaving Cal State L.A. in 1983, Lister has continued to champion the University, raising awareness and funding for its athletic programs and students.  In the 1990s, Lister organized a celebrity basketball game that drew greats like Magic Johnson. Every year, the Athletics Department also hosts an annual track and field meet in his honor.

“Cal State L.A. was the match that sparked the fire in my life. My Hollywood career,” Lister said.

He is currently working on a book and a number of animation, TV and film projects, including his first horror movie, “The Trap Door,” in which he has the leading role. The film is set to release later this year.

“Everyone at Cal State L.A. has got to come out,” he said.