Tiger face tattoo enthusiast and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson is known for plenty of brawls — both in and out of the ring. But one of the most legendary, and most complicated, is his relationship with his former promoter, Don King.
At one point thick as thieves and devoutly loyal to each other — at least publicly — the two larger-than-life personas eventually had a massive falling out that included the athlete suing King for $100 million. (They'd reach a settlement of $14 million.)
King, with his infamous gray-streaked hair, thick glasses, and megawatt smile, is portrayed by Russell Hornsby in the new Hulu scripted bio-series Mike. Described at one point by Tyson (who is portrayed by Trevante Rhodes) as someone who "spoke like a preacher and thought like a grandmaster," King is both bombastic and sneaky — a fast talker with the ability to manipulate anyone who stands in the way of him making a payday.
The real King's public image suggests this depiction isn't far off from the truth. So Hornsby, who has never met the man, myth, and legend whom he portrays, had the extra challenge of using a supporting role to showcase someone who is not confined to the sidelines.
"Don King took up the air in the room," Hornsby tells Metacritic. "In a press conference or with everything else, if he wasn't speaking — because of his height, because of the hair, because of that 30-watt smile — he drew your attention. That was purposeful. He wanted to keep the attention on him and take off the fighters because he wanted to show America and his fighters that he was the show."
Here, Hornsby talks about what it took to embody the King in the limited series.
How do you depict a man who is larger than life and who is recognized even by people who don't really know who he is?
For every role that you take on, you have to have a little bit of that character inside you. And so, for me in my approach to finding Don, I feel like I possess an aspect of bombast and theatricality and bigness and a presence that, in a lot of my roles, I've had to sort of subdue. And up to this point, [TV] audiences hadn't seen that side of me. These are the only sides of me that I've done in theater and whatnot. And so I had to tap into that carnival barker, if you will.
You look to find the little grace notes, nuances, the minutiae of darkness. You just start from the inside out. I went back to look at where he came from. I examined his history, how he was raised, where he was raised, that time in America that I think helped influence him, and his personality, as well. I took all those things into consideration and boiled it down and tried to find a great concentrate that you can help bring to light in small doses.
I know you said you were working from inside out, but how much did the hair, makeup and costume departments play into this? Don's hair, especially, is so recognizable.
The hair and the fat suit [I wore] were like a cherry on top. That's the kind of thing that allows you to say to yourself, it's showtime. But I had to find the vocal quality. I had to find his pitch. I had to find his cadence. But once I put the hair on and had the suit on, I was able to totally lose myself and invest in all of that and that's where it starts to come alive.
I'm working on the voice and cadence when I'm doing my lines in my hotel or in my apartment where I was staying and I'm a little nervous. And then, once I put the hair on, I'm saying, "Oh wow, OK. It's here. I'm here. Let's do it."
How did you find that specific cadence? Did you listen to old audio footage of him?
For me, I thought about jazz. He was running numbers in the '50s, right? That was a big jazz era, with big bands and bebop. Jazz has a higher pitch to it and it moves. The syncopation and andante is short and snappy. So, I used that as music as an influence to, organically, find the vocal quality.
And then I watched a lot of YouTube videos of a lot of interviews that he did. And I saw this transition of how he was very uncomfortable in the '70s and, kind of, quiet and subdued and shy. And then, when you see him again in the '80s when he was involved in [the Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier fight] Thrilla in Manila or when he's getting ready to promote Michael Jackson and his family's Victory Tour and then when he meets Mike Tyson, you see this man come alive. And so, I organically built on that.
He's a soap box preacher in Harlem (stops to do his impression of a preacher before laughing).
Is Don King playing on a stereotype?
I don't think he's going for a stereotype, necessarily. I think it's part of his personality. But I do think that he did create a character. What I mean by that is, I think we have to examine America. When we look at the Black presence in America because, historically, it was there to entertain — whether it be through music, the minstrel show, through pugilism and boxing, or through what they would call the "Battle Royal" [boxing matches where groups of men and boys were paid to fight each other].
We were there to entertain. And so, I think that Don inherently knows that the only way that they will see you is not to stand flat-footed. It's to be nimble, and to be entertaining. I think that he took on that persona of knowing that he had to give a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine.
Before King and Tyson had their falling out, the promoter was in Tyson's corner for some of his most heinous moments. The series devotes an episode to Desiree Washington's rape accusations against Tyson and the ensuing trial and conviction. There's a particularly disturbing moment in that episode where we see you, as King, smirk at Washington (who is portrayed by Li Eubanks) just as the verdict is read. This makes me want to ask: Is Don King a villain?
I use the Star Wars' Empire Strikes Backanalogy. Luke Skywalker goes to get his Jedi training from Yoda, right? It's interrupted and he's not able to finish his training before he has to deal with the dark side. The same thing happens to Mike: Mike goes to Cus D'Amato, [the legendary, and legitimate, trainer portrayed by Harvey Keitel] to train to become the best boxer in the world and to become heavyweight champion.
Well, Cus passes away before Mike becomes champion — before his training is complete. Once he becomes champion, the dark side already has their talons in him. He's not prepared to deal with them. I wouldn't say that Don is a villain, per se. I will say that he represents parts of the dark side. And it's the dark side that is represented by sports and pugilism and how we have a tendency to suck the blood out of fighters.
And also the dark side being America. America will take [these athletes], exalt them to the highest heights and then let them fall. We want the best of you. And then once we use that up, we will discard you.
Mike is a story told through Tyson's point of view even if it is doing so without Tyson's authorization. Given this, do you think it's a fair depiction of King?
I can't say how accurate it is. There are moments of dramatic license being taken. But we know that Don stole from his fighters; he stole from Mike. All we're trying to do is give you a fair and balanced look as much as we possibly can. I don't think it's a retelling unless Don were to tell his [version of the] story. The truth has to come from either the horse's mouth or those who were there first-hand.
Get to know Russell Hornsby:
An accomplished stage, film, and television actor, Hornsby became known to TV audiences through the ABC Family drama Lincoln Heights, the first iteration of HBO'sIn Treatment(Metascore: 76), and the NBC fairy-tale themed procedural Grimm (58). His film credits include the adaptation of the August Wilson play Fences (79), the young adult film The Hate U Give(81), and coincidentally, another boxing story: Creed II (66).