It isn’t only Evander Holyfield and his ears who knows Mike Tyson and his face tattoo have a flair for the dramatic. But what most folks don’t know is that the big man’s love of drama stems from his even more intense pre-boxing love of legitimate theater.
Yes, it’s true. Tyson, before finishing up his final Broadway performance in August of the Spike Lee-directed one-man show Undisputed, actually had a long but little-known theater career. Before he was a boxer, before he was a Herman Cain impersonator on some website singing about pizza, Michael Gerard “Percival” Tyson was just a young New Yorker waiting tables and also waiting for his bigger break.
I know. It’s hard to believe. And yet, there I was at the Crambis Public Library researching how lollipops are made when I found Iron Mike’s theater career documented in a string of obscure reviews and news clippings. Since I’m a huge theater buff — see my scarf and beret? — here are what I feel the five most significant reviewed roles back when Kid Dynamite spat monologues and not chunks of ears.
HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, 1976
“Tyson Shines In Quasi-Soso,” Durham University Intelligencer
” ‘the only relief from the hackneyed dialog and third-rate spongy-painted backdrops no doubt overseen by Professor Turner’s infamous eye for lack of detail came from Michael Gerard Tyson, who graced the stage, stepping up from understudy, when I was in attendance. Incandescent and boasting an incredible falsetto range, Tyson brought gravitas and a degree of sadness to his performance as the Quasimodo. Leaping about the stage with wild abandon, Tyson’s imposing frame — usually used to intimidate his fellow students offstage — was put to ample use as the titular bell-ringer. The pain, suffering, and madness Tyson’s character suffered from seemed to nearly be tattooed on the young actor’s face, which occasionally set costar Lynn Muhlenfeld into hysterics and bouts of weeping I believe isn’t in the book ‘ — Heath Tanner”
A CHORUS LINE, 1979
“I Hope YOU Get It,” The Off-Off-Off-Broadway Appeal
” ‘of a flaming translucent dragon. But that’s nothing compared to the fire that newcomer Michael Gerard Tyson brought to this stage in this performance. A Chorus Line is a show with a fantastically extensive cast, so it’s no small shakes to say that Tyson stands out — and that’s despite a minor speech impediment he chose to give his character. Perhaps it’s that one flaw Tyson brilliantly invented that lent his take on Greg, a dancer struggling with his own homosexuality, such fierceness. Apart from Tyson’s obvious litheness in a leotard, and his sculpted physique, this critic was struck by Tyson’s ability to leap about the stage with wild abandon: Heck, the pride he displayed after landing an impossible quintuple lutz (with ice skates!) he may as well be tattooed on his face because it was positively palpable from my front-row seat ‘ — Cimone Burlington”
THE GLASS MENAGERIE, 1980
“Throw As Many Stones In This Glass House As You Wish,” The Weekly Reflector
” ‘ and even though the director inexplicably chose to force his performers to wear robot costumes for this ‘imaginative’ take on the Tennessee Williams classic, the only instances of imagination came from Tyson as the Gentleman Caller. His ability to ad lib was particularly commendable when a snapped guideline caused a glass chandelier to come crashing down. Tyson’s cast mates stuck to their monotone guns, not reacting at all, but Tyson displayed true bravery when he unmasked himself and ranted about how the wreckage onstage resembles that of his seemingly unstoppable streak as an athlete at Soldan High School. It would be no exaggeration whatsoever to say that passion may as well have been tattooed across his face ‘ — VT Stenson”
THE MUSIC MAN, 1982
“The Music Man Sizzles, Burns, Then Sizzles Some More,” The Staten Island Ledger
” ‘and so it is with that that I say showmanship has a new name, and it’s Tyson. The Music Man is a show that’s done by amateur and professional companies, so it’s fitting that Tyson, a young man who has had his theater career positively explode in the last two years, take the wheel, change lanes, and shift onto the freeway in the lead as Professor Harold Hill. One of Tyson’s best moments — when he’s inexplicably clad in an embroidered barbershop quartet jacket — unquestionably comes when he bursts into the school gym to offer a a take on ‘Shipoopi’ so haunting that I may as well have had tears tattooed onto my face for how much I openly wept ‘ — Derry Bishop”
KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, 1984
“Tyson’s Last Krapp,” The New York Times
” ‘with the patience and destructing daringness of a glacier, Mike ‘The Actor’ Tyson brings an intensity and whimsy to a one-act usually relegated to a level of hamminess usually found in a butcher in New York’s famous Deli District. Tyson’s choice to perform this role in the nude — save for some strategically placed bananas, which he eats throughout the show — might seem clumsy, but it shows that this is a performer who can convey a man with nothing to hide, everything to be ashamed of, and is also lost in time itself. It’s fitting that this is also Tyson’s farewell to the stage, as he has infamously announced he’s leaving the career behind to make a name for himself in pugilism. Readers, my grave disappointment, nay, absolute devastation at his decision makes me so upset it may as well be ‘ — Brooks Atkinson”