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Toback on “Tyson”

Toback on “Tyson” (photo)

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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.”

04152009_Tyson3.jpgWhat 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.

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Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

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Cancel it!

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Forgotten America

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Wedding Planners

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Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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