Mike Tyson Mike Tyson

If Mike Tyson had been cast on any TV series other than NBC's Law & Order: SVU, it wouldn't have sparked such a firestorm. But the hiring of a convicted rapist on a drama that has received numerous awards for its sensitive portrayal of sex crimes has raised flags and inspired one outraged rape survivor to start a petition urging NBC to rethink its decision. So far, the petition has been signed by more than 6,000 protesters, including NCIS star Pauley Perrette.

"I'm sorry that she has a difference of opinion, but she's entitled to it," Tyson says of the Change.org petition's author, Marcie Kaveney. "I'm sorry that she's not happy. [But] I didn't rape nobody or do anything like that, and this lady wasn't there to know if I did or not. I don't trip on that stuff. I'm not trying to get rich and famous; I'm just trying to feed my family. Why should they care? Since I'm clean and sober five years, I haven't broken any laws or did any crimes. I'm just trying to live my life."

The former boxing champ plays death row inmate Reggie Rhodes, whose crimes were provoked by devastating childhood abuse, in the Feb. 6 episode. "He's a really damaged young man and a broken person," says Tyson, who served three years of a six-year prison sentence after being convicted in 1992 of raping Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old Miss Black America beauty pageant contestant. "He was taken advantage of any way a man could be taken advantage of. He murdered one of his abusers and now he's on death row working on trying to get an appeal."

Tyson's scenes all take place in a prison cell or a courtroom — two locations he knows well. But he says he wasn't concerned about dredging up his past. "I just got the script and did the best I could," he says. "I have no emotional connection to the role. As a human being I can relate to it, but it has nothing to do with me."

Tyson admits that prior to his TV Guide Magazine interview, he was coached by his team about "what to say and how to say it, because they feel I can't handle this stuff." But all he really wants is to be given a chance to demonstrate that he is a changed man.

"When people say, 'He shouldn't do this,' that upsets me because it hurts people close to me," says Tyson, who has been working hard to foster relationships with his seven surviving children. "I'm happy with myself. I'm not on drugs. I'm not drinking. I'm not making a big fool of myself again. I'm trying really hard, you know?"

Tyson, 46, who won a 1989 Kids' Choice Award for Favorite Male Athlete and oversees his Mike Tyson Care Foundation to help at-risk youth, has long been a "big-time" fan of SVU. "My wife [Lakiha Spicer, who he wed in 2009] and I looked on this show a lot, especially when I was going through my relapse and drug periods," he says. "It was the most exciting show on TV. I think it's awesome that they take true events out of the paper. It has great energy."

His favorite SVU character is Ice-T's Detective Tutuola; the two share scenes in the episode. Tyson also appears with guest star Andre Braugher and Mariska Hargitay, who in 2002 started her Joyful Heart Foundation to help survivors of sexual assault. While Hargitay has been silent on Tyson's casting, the foundation's spokesperson expressed serious concerns to the show's producers.

Tyson says he found Hargitay to be "very quiet" on set. "You can tell she's the boss." But he maintains that he didn't take the job looking for friends or admiration. "I didn't go there looking for people to kiss on me and tell me how great I am," he says. "That's my downfall. I try to stay as far away from that as possible. I was there to do a service."

This was Tyson's first opportunity to act as a character other than himself (as he has done in The Hangover films; he'll appear in Part 3 later this year). He is well aware that he has much to learn. "I don't think I have any acting skills; I have acting ability. I did [SVU] with the best of my ability, and I'd really like to do more, no matter what the role is. This is a transformation in my growth path as a human being, and I'm so grateful that society in general has given me the opportunity to live a better, healthy life that I deserve to live."

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!