The old chestnut is that opposites attract, which might explain how maverick filmmaker James Toback (“Fingers,” “Two Girls and a Guy”) became such good buddies with Mike Tyson in 1985, long before the boxing legend had his face tattooed or threatened to eat anyone’s children. Toback even went so far as to give Iron Mike cameo roles in two of his films, “Black and White” and “When Will I Be Loved,” setting the stage for Toback’s ultimate cinematic gift to his friend: an eponymous documentary. More first-person confessional than standard doc portrait, “Tyson” does feature ring footage and other archival memories, but it mostly focuses on the champ, here and now, poignantly chronicling his own life to the camera. Recalling his troubled youth, his meteoric rise to the championship, his relationship with beloved mentor and coach Cus D’Amato, and even the ugly stuff (including his tumultuous marriage to Robin Givens, his three-year prison sentence for rape and the notorious ear-biting incident), Tyson proves an entertaining and brutally candid storyteller. Speaking by phone, Toback and I knocked around about Kid Dynamite, being an outsider, LSD madness and why he’s not at all bothered by people calling his new film one-sided.
I’m less interested in how you and Tyson first met, so much as how you two became friends.
The first night we met, we had a terrific, long conversation. He’d come by the set of [1987’s] “The Pick-up Artist,” which I was shooting at the Museum of Natural History. We went, at five in the morning, for a two-hour walk in Central Park. He was 19 years old and about to become Heavyweight Champion. We got into my experience at Jim Brown’s house in the Hollywood Hills, and we just had a bracing conversation. I felt, this is a guy I could spend a lot of time with, and I think he had a similar response. There was a feeling that we’ve each got a lot to learn from the other, a back-and-forth, rhythmic connection that you have when you each feel: “I’m in the presence of somebody whose friendship will be valuable.”
So what have you learned from him?
A great deal about the psychology of fighting, about early exposure to violent criminal life, the closeness to death and the acceptance of it at a very early age because of its sociological proximity. He was fascinated with my experience with madness on LSD, which he couldn’t get over. He kept saying, “What do you mean, ‘madness’?” I had a huge dose of LSD and eight days of insanity under it, and he was absolutely riveted by the notion that there was such a thing. Of course, years later, when he goes to solitary confinement in [the] penitentiary, he was lying in a corner one day and said to himself, suddenly, “This is what Toback meant. Now I’m insane.”
What do you two ever disagree about?
It’s quite remarkable. In 24 years of friendship, the only unpleasant moment I had with him was when he was going to hire Don King as a manager. I said to him, “But you yourself have always said that you would never go with Don King because of things you’d heard from other fighters,” including Ali, who he idolized. He got very upset and angry, said he didn’t want to discuss Don King, and I insisted that he was the one who had said it. I was simply quoting him back to himself. He said he wouldn’t talk about it anymore. He was going to do it, and that was it. That’s the only time we had a moment like that.
I imagine he’s not someone to question after putting his foot down.
I never felt any physical fear in his presence. In fact, we were posing for photos a couple weeks ago, and we were facing each other. I looked right into his eyes, and he cracked up. He said, “You could frighten a lot of fighters with that look.” It’s funny in light of the section of the movie where he talks about staring into fighters’ eyes and crippling them with the fear he was feeling before. He seems to have fear as a sort of operative reality. It’s the thing he’s reacting to in himself, and his whole ability to function seems to be a driven reaction to his own fear.
He’s very candid about his trust issues in the film. Why do you think he trusts you?
Well, I’ve never taken anything from him. My interest has been in him, not in what I could get from him. We’ve had a collaborative, even-keel friendship. He talks about “leeches” in the movie — he’s even leeched off people, and he must like it, because he’s had these leech-like relationships. I’d say that I might be the only candidate for a non-leech relationship.