I suppose it’s very nice for Mike Tyson, who was convicted of rape in 1992, that he’s getting what he calls his “dream job“—acting on Law & Order: SVU. The show’s fans aren’t quite as happy about it and have started a petition to ask NBC to cast someone else in the upcoming episode’s role of a man with a troubled childhood who’s now on death row.
Tyson’s casting on a show that revolves around advocacy and justice for assault victims has sparked a debate about what opportunities people deserve after serving time for a violent crime and what constitutes an attempt at restitution. We probably won’t get good answers to these questions with a debate over SVU. But if showrunner Warren Leight really wanted, as he said on Twitter, “to provoke discussion and awareness” by casting Tyson, it’s useful to think about whether this is the best route to that goal—or to good television.
Tyson’s paid his debt to society and deserves a chance to work in his chosen profession, which is acting. But it’s not as if the man lacks for opportunities. The director James Toback has featured Tyson as himself in his features When Will I Be Loved and Black and White, and he examined Tyson’s life in a documentary that premiered at Cannes in 2008. Tyson’s been in both Hangover movies, and Spike Lee produced Tyson’s one-man show, Undisputed Truth, which got a Broadway run—an exceedingly rare opportunity. I don’t really think there’s any question that Tyson has gotten a fair shot to pursue work in the entertainment industry, even if we’re applying a heightened standard to compensate for the idea that there’s employment discrimination against people who have been incarcerated.
As for Law & Order, the franchise has a rich history of famous guest stars. Generally, when celebrities play themselves, it’s to integrate the events of the show into the real world of New York, as has been the case with cameos by the city’s mayors. Otherwise, major actors are normally cast in roles that shake up our conception of their talents, as Cynthia Nixon did by playing a woman faking mental illness as part of an elaborate vengeance plot in 2007.
As a potentially sympathetic killer, it doesn’t sound like Tyson will be bringing local cred or fading into an out-of-the-box role—and the worry is that the character’s proximity to Tyson’s life story will somehow whitewash his crimes. Without having seen the episode, none of us can really say. But Leight better hope that casting Tyson in this part really does lend life experience to the show and deepen the episode. Otherwise, it’s SVU handing over its credibility to someone who still hasn’t earned it.