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Mike Tyson Is America’s Greatest Actor (As Long As The Role Is Mike Tyson)

This past weekend, Mike Tyson appeared in the film new “Meet The Blacks.” Rather than summarize the movie myself, here’s the synopsis from IMDb, which I don’t think I could improve on (the bolding is mine):

The Black family is getting out of Chicago in hopes of a better life. After Carl Black (Mike Epps) comes into some unexpected funds, he takes his family and leaves the hustling lifestyle behind for something better. Carl, his new wife Lorena (Zulay Henao), son Carl Jr., daughter Allie Black (Bresha Webb) and cousin Cronut (Lil Duval) pack up and move to Beverly Hills. Turns out, Carl couldn’t have picked a worse time to move. They arrive right around the time of the annual purge, when all crime is legal for twelve hours.

This movie’s plot went from being OK to great in one sentence. That is how you write a movie! Based on a careful analysis of the trailer and credits, Tyson will play James Clown, who appears to be one of the purgers. Why is this important? Well, the role dramatically expands Tyson’s dramatic range. Tyson has usually been cast as “Mike Tyson.”

Here’s a list of the people who most frequently play themselves on the big screen, according to the credits1 listed in the the OpusData database:2

Jay Leno 22
Larry King 21
Mike Tyson 7
Stan Lee 6
Conan O’Brien 5
David Hasselhoff 5
Jon Stewart 5
Kurt Loder 5
Shaquille O’Neal 5
Whoopi Goldberg 5
Bill Maher 4
Brooke Shields 4
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 4
Liza Minnelli 4
Neil Patrick Harris 4
Weird Al Yankovic 4
Alex Trebek 3
Alice Cooper 3
Bill Murray 3
Bob Costas 3
Bob Saget 3
Burt Bacharach 3
Cher 3
Chuck Scarborough 3
Debbie Reynolds 3
Ehren McGhehey 3
Elvis Costello 3
Eric Roberts 3
Erik Estrada 3
George Takei 3
James Earl Jones 3
Jim Lampley 3
Jimmy Fallon 3
Jimmy Kimmel 3
Lena Horne 3
Lenny Kravitz 3
LL Cool J 3
Martha Stewart 3
Matt Lauer 3
Miley Cyrus 3
Oprah Winfrey 3
Penny Marshall 3
Piers Morgan 3
Regis Philbin 3
Rip Taylor 3
Robin Williams 3
Roseanne 3
Snoop Dogg 3
Soledad O’Brien 3
Just be yourself!

Source: OpusData

Tyson shows up seven times! Six are comedies — “Play It To The Bone” (1999), “The Hangover” (2009), “The Hangover Part II” (2011), “Scary Movie V” (2013), “Grudge Match” (2013), and “Entourage” (2015) — and one, “Black and White” (2000), is a drama. You may have noticed: The Tysonaissance really kicked off after “The Hangover.”

The rest of the top tier is dominated by late-night comedy show hosts and news anchors. If you wanted a guy to do an in-universe comedy show, Jay Leno appears to be your man. If you need someone to interview a newsmaking character, it seems like Larry King will pick up the phone and work for scale.

Next down the line is Stan Lee, who is the king of cameos in Marvel movies. If you’re like me, you got mad at this list because Lee only appeared six times despite 24 such cameos in Marvel films. But he was credited as “Stan Lee” or “himself” in just five Marvel movies, as well as in “Mallrats.” Lee’s filmography gets us into some thorny existential questions regarding the existence of in-universe Stans Lee.3 who exist along with a suite of Lee doppelgangers holding various odd jobs across America and also Xandar.4

Following Lee, you’ve got several more daytime or late-night hosts — Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Kurt Loder and Whoopi Goldberg — but also athlete Shaquille O’Neal5 and well-regarded in Germany David Hasselhoff.6 So somehow Tyson has appeared on-screen as himself the most of any person who isn’t on a television show.

In fact, there is a compelling argument to be made that perhaps Tyson is the greatest actor of his generation: Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian director who pioneered a seminal method of acting in the early 20th century, said in “An Actor Prepares”:

Always and forever, when you are on the stage, you must play yourself. But it will be in an infinite variety of combinations of objectives, and given circumstances which you have prepared for your part, and which have been smelted in the furnace of your emotion memory.

Give him this, Tyson has mastered a role in a way that would make Stanislavski proud. Tyson is the best in the business when it comes to playing the character of Mike Tyson. He makes Daniel Day-Lewis look like a real chump when it comes to getting inside this role. He’s definitely aware of his skill set, too: Anyone who has seen Tyson on Adult Swim’s “Mike Tyson Mysteries” can tell he knows where his bread is buttered.

My main regret: I wish the dataset went far enough back to fold Tyson’s preferred presidential candidate Donald Trump into this analysis. They’ve got a really interesting history, to say the least.

Based on the database, Trump has appeared as himself in only “Celebrity” and “Zoolander,” but who can truly forget his stunning performance in “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.”


  1. I included any character credit in which the string “self” appeared, as well as occasions where the name in the credits was the same as the name of the performer. Not on this list are credits for appearing in documentaries, concerts or the main cast of “Jackass.”

  2. The database is predominantly concerned with box office, and while it does go back to at least the 1940s, the casting data should be considered complete only since the mid-1990s. As a result, this is an incomplete set that still nonetheless gives us a decent look at contemporary film.

  3. Like “Attorneys General.”

  4. Lee’s varied appearances stressed me out. “Stan Lee,” the man, canonically exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — that much we know, given his credits in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In that universe, Lee is a military veteran who landed on Omaha Beach, resides in New York and has twice been confused for someone else by Tony Stark, once for Larry King and once for Hugh Hefner. But! Lee also has several doppelgangers operating all over the MCU earth, and throughout time and space. These doppelgangers include: a man who has been to Milwaukee, New Mexico, Washington D.C., Chattanooga, an English mental institution, the planet Xandar and San Francisco. Confusingly, he also had a doppelganger World War II officer, which just messes with my head because it overturns the concept that we could be looking at a single man with various homes. I am drawing the inclusion that — rather than the enduring theory that Lee is The Watcher — he is instead introducing the concept of life-model decoys to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Other comic book universes have worse or better versions of the “who is Stan Lee, really?” conundrum: the first Spider-Man series doesn’t name Lee’s character and just puts him in as a random nice New Yorker. The “Amazing Spider-Man” series does name him, but in-universe he is a classical music fan who has a doppelganger that later attends a high school graduation. The “Fantastic Four” movies fantastically fouled this up: In the first one, he’s Willie Lumpkin, the canonical mailman of the Four, while in “The Rise of the SIlver Surfer” he tries to attend a wedding by claiming he is “Stan Lee.” In the X-Men movies, at least, Lee’s character has a plausible life, as a beach hotdog vendor (“X-Men”) who lives in the vicinity of Jean Grey (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) and moonlights as a strip club DJ (“Deadpool”). Life model decoys. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  5. ”He Got Game,” “Good Burger,” “CB4,” “Scary Movie 4” and “After The Sunset”

  6. ”Piranha 3D,” “Kickin It Old Skool,” “Hop,” “The Big Tease,” and “Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie”

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.


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