Steven Seagal Gets a Shot at Stardom
Tall and lean, with the rough, good looks of a daredevil jet pilot, Steven Seagal is more than just a 6-foot-4 martial-arts wizard who can flip a man 5 feet in the air with a flick of his wrist.
His fans proclaim that he’s a star waiting to be born.
And let’s talk fans. Seagal has an enthusiastic film studio booster (Warner Bros. President Terry Semel), a mega-potent Hollywood agent-pal (Michael Ovitz, the fearsome leader of Creative Artists Agency) and a high-profile public relations firm (Rogers & Cowan) to go along with a model-starlet wife, Kelly (“The Woman in Red”) Le Brock. (Who can forget her TV commercial lament: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”)
Seagal (pronounced See-GAL), 37, also has a host of Hollywood power-broker-fans predicting that he’ll join the ranks of such action megastars Arnold Schwarzenegger, 40; Sylvester Stallone, 41; Chuck Norris, 47; Clint Eastwood, 57; and Charles Bronson, 65.
“There are some people who carry their own set of lights--and I think Steven may be one of ‘em,” said veteran producer Freddie Fields, who “goes back a couple of years” with Seagal.
But is Seagal--who had never been in front of a camera before last spring--ready to make the leap to stardom? The box-office receipts will be the final barometer (as in the bottom line), but if you want to see Hollywood’s star-making machinery humming in high gear, listen to the story behind Seagal’s sudden emergence as a bankable film star.
A decade ago, he was living in Japan, where he taught aikido and--by his account--was recruited by the CIA to help carry out undercover missions.
A year ago, he had returned to the States and was quietly running his West Hollywood-based Aikido Ten Shin Dojo, a martial-arts school, where he still teaches three nights a week.
Today, he is awaiting the April 8 release of “Above the Law,” a $7.5-million thriller from Warners in which he plays an embattled Chicago detective whose investigation of political corruption lands him in the midst of a CIA-connected Central American drug connection.
Tomorrow? Watch out, Arnie, Sly, Chuck, Clint and Charles.
“As soon as I saw Steven, I knew that, given the right vehicle, he could become a major star,” said Tony Ludwig, president of Imagine Films. “The closest person I’ve ever seen that carries himself with the same kind of stature is Mikhail Baryshnikov. Steven is smooth, powerful and has this don’t-mess-with-me presence. It’s almost as if he’s a manufactured human being.”
Of course, “manufactured” cuts both ways. With all these heavy hitters behind him, we’re entitled to wonder: Is Seagal a bona fide discovery or will be come off as just another homogenized Hollywood hunk?
“Steven has the most amazing presence you’ve ever seen,” says Ludwig, who met Seagal when Ludwig was a Creative Artists agent. “When he walks into a room, you can see every head--male and female--turn around as if they’re all wondering who this guy is. It’s sheer magnetism.”
OK, so he’s magnetic. But can he act? Or is it enough to project a steely-eyed stare and a rugged set of pecs?
In person, Seagal is shy, self-effacing, eager to make a good impression. Unaccustomed to such scrutiny, he had mixed emotions about spending several days with a reporter, alternating between being curious about the process and wary of the intimacy.
Ludwig wasn’t exaggerating. When Seagal sweeps through a restaurant, quickly crossing the room with his long, supple strides, heads do turn. With his huge hands, finely sculpted cheekbones and quick, cat-like movements, Seagal radiates plenty of movie-marquee sex appeal. And his martial-arts expertise seems to offer plenty of action-film credibility.
But what really grabs your attention is his voice.
Whether he is recounting his exploits overseas or wondering about his box-office reception, he speaks with a hushed, conspiratorial purr--as if he were worried that a tiny man hidden under the floorboards might be taping the conversation.
Who knows--maybe he won’t be such a bad actor after all.
It’s always hard to predict how film critics will respond to a new actor, but judging from an early, rough-cut screening of “Above the Law,” Seagal appears to have the makings of a believable action hero. As a Chicago undercover cop at odds with federal authorities, he seems at home in front of the camera, whether he’s manhandling drug kingpins during a car chase, cooly interrogating suspects or preaching against the excesses of CIA hit-men.
While Seagal demonstrates plenty of agile macho moves (he often chops his way through a half-dozen thugs at a time), he also projects an air of quiet intelligence--he looks like he could really pursue a complicated investigation (a quality missing with Norris, Schwarzenneger or Bronson). The film makers also balance the action with comedy, allowing Seagal to show a nice light, raffish touch, especially when trading quips with co-star and squad-car partner Pam Greer.
But how does a virtual unknown suddenly emerge with a starring role (and a story credit) in a studio film?
How’s this for an answer: Make sure your agent is Mike Ovitz.
According to many accounts, the chief of CAA, Hollywood’s leading talent agency, is not only a longtime martial-arts enthusiast but actually studied with Seagal. As they became friendly, the idea of Seagal as an action hero began to take shape.
At least that was the word around town on Seagal, and it was widely repeated on the set of “Above the Law” in Chicago. Virtually everyone--from the grips to production staffers to director Andy Davis--seemed aware of the Seagal-Ovitz connection. In fact, many crew members saw Ovitz’s involvement as an omen.
One night last summer, a local attorney was drinking with several crew members at a Rush Street bar. “Are you sure this movie will ever be released?” the lawyer scoffed. “Who’s ever heard of this Seagal guy?”
The crew members were indignant. “Hey, just wait and see,” one said. “Seagal is no lightweight. One of his star students is the most powerful agent in Hollywood. No one’s gonna mess with this film.”
Ovitz declined to be interviewed for this article. (He rarely speaks to the press--CAA has a company-wide gag rule about giving interviews.)
However, Seagal denied having instructed Ovitz in aikido:
“Coming from my lips, I don’t teach him the martial arts on a formal basis,” he said. “Michael does love the martial arts and we talk about it all the time. But that’s the extent of it, despite what you may have heard.”
But Warners’ Semel confirmed that Ovitz has played a “special” role in Seagal’s progress.
“Michael has been one of Steven’s major supporters,” Semel said. “He went far beyond the role of just being Steven’s agent. In fact, with the type of superstar client list Michael has, you wouldn’t normally see him work so closely with a first-time actor.
“But he really believes Steven can be a star. Michael knew Steven from the world of martial-arts, where Steven is apparently something of a celebrity. So Michael has really gotten involved. He’d constantly say to me, ‘Think of this guy. Think of this guy.’ ”
Seagal isn’t shy about voicing his view of his relationship with Ovitz. Crouched on an exercise mat at his West Hollywood dojo (aikido school), saying good night to his last class of the day, he seemed especially thoughtful as he explained his kinship with the Hollywood deal-maker.
“Michael and I are very close--we love each other,” Seagal said. “I’m like a guru to him.”
Hollywood loves action heroes. Once they ascend to the heaven of the stars, they’re like a successful sports franchise--they just keep spewing money.
But it’s hard to find new tough-guy contenders. And it’s even more difficult to package and sell them. The Hollywood landscape is littered with the bodies of failures, actors like Jan-Michael Vincent and David Carradine, who never won the public’s heart and pocketbooks as action heroes.
Semel has seen how much box-office muscle action stars can provide a studio. Warners has been involved at virtually all ends of the rock ‘em-sock ‘em spectrum, distributing both a host of modestly priced Eastwood films as well as picking up such low-low-budget hits as Bruce Lee’s legendary “Enter the Dragon” and Tom Laughlin’s “Billy Jack” movies.
“If you have a hit action movie, you can have a hit everywhere,” Semel said. “Action films translate particularly well overseas. ‘Cobra,’ for example, did twice the business internationally that it did here.”
Semel said that he first met Seagal socially. “I knew he was an aspiring actor, that he was physical, very powerful--and that he was a good-looking guy,” Semel said. “And as we got interested in him, we went on the theory that his appeal wouldn’t necessarily be limited to martial arts--that he had the persona and the physique to be a potential star.”
According to Seagal’s account, once execs at Warners got interested, they made quite a sales pitch.
“When I met with Terry Semel and (Warners production head) Mark Canton, they told me, ‘We’d like to make you part of the family here.’ They explained that they’d acquired a ton of material for Clint Eastwood, but that he wasn’t getting any younger and he wanted to do a lot more projects on his own. . . .
“That’s when they said, ‘We’d like to see you take his place. We think you can be the next Eastwood.’ Then they gave me a pile of scripts and basically said, ‘Pick one and we’ll do it with you.’ ”
Did Warners really give this unknown martial arts pro carte blanche? Semel’s description of their encounter was somewhat less vivid.
“I don’t think it was a matter of anyone replacing Clint. He’s gone far beyond being just an action star,” Semel said.
“But when you do look at action stars, it’s a very short list: Stallone, Norris, Schwarzenegger, maybe a couple of others. The key question always is: Who’s that rare young guy coming up who can handle those physical roles? We think Steven could be it. He . . . .”
Semel searched for the right words.
“Steven seems to exude this enormous sense of focus and intensity. He has this serious look that--well, when you look at him, you see danger.”
The Cover Story
Danger is something that Seagal says he has seen plenty of. Born in Detroit and reared in California, he left home at 16, eventually moving to Japan in 1968, where he devoted himself full-time to the study of martial arts.
By the end of his 15-year stint there, he had become a respected figure in the field. His accomplishments have been widely chronicled in martial arts magazines, which note that he became the only Westerner to operate his own dojo in Japan.
While teaching there, Seagal discovered that his classes were populated with an unusual assortment of students. Students who, as he put it, worked for a “particular agency.”
The Central Intelligence Agency.
“In Asia, you’d be amazed how many people are connected with the agency,” Seagal explained one night on the film set in Chicago, where he was fighting off a migraine headache. “A lot of the American military has been over there since the occupation and they’ve become very connected to the intelligence community.
“These guys were my students. They saw my abilities, both with martial arts and with the language. My CIA godfather told me he’d never heard any American speak Japanese so well. I would say I was a prime candidate to be recruited.”
Did Seagal actually work for the CIA? He offered a qualified admission--or perhaps a qualified denial.
“You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “And you could say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field and, through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.”
Seagal declined to offer many details, refusing to cite specific missions or locales. However, when asked about the authenticity of a scene in “Above the Law” that shows an intelligence operative injecting a rival with a deadly chemical truth serum, Seagal said: “That’s not made up. That’s something that really happened.”
However, Seagal spoke freely about his involvement in security operations for the Shah of Iran when he was deposed in 1979: “We helped set up safe houses in London and Paris so the Shah and his family could flee the country. We also were aiding members of the Shah’s family, who were under the threat of death from Kakahili, Ayatollah Khomeini’s killing judge.
“It was incredibly barbaric--they were randomly executing people. It was like something out of the Hitler era. One of the Shah’s nephews wouldn’t leave, so we had to hit him over the head and try to take him out unconscious. But he insisted on going free, so we finally had to let him go. We warned him what would happen. But he left. Later the same day, he got shot in the back of the head.”
Seagal said he has done more recent security work, including work for South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but only jobs for people who are “special” to him. “My wife and I just had a baby girl, so I’m trying to stay semi-retired and away from a lot of these things.”
Only when you get some distance from these stories do you begin to wonder just what kind of act this would-be actor has. Is he on the level? Or is he just blowing smoke--playing the part of a scruffy character lifted from a Ross Thomas thriller?
“I’d be very happy if nobody believes me,” Seagal said without a trace of irritation. “I don’t think you can find anyone in the agency who can prove they work for the agency. That’s the whole point.
“I did some work for the White House recently, for a committee where everybody had top-security clearance. And when they checked up on me, they couldn’t find any data on me. They asked the agency, who refused to confirm or deny who works for them.
“That’s why I see no reason to go public with any details I might or might not know. But I could tell you stories. . . .”
Seagal’s voice trailed off for a moment as he squeezed his temples, trying to soothe his headache. “You know, it’s not like a movie. If they wanted to, they could get people to come over and get me tonight.”
The Back Story
Seagal was right about checking his story. If you call the CIA, a public information officer dutifully explains, as if asked the question every day: “We don’t discuss employee records. . . . No, we can’t confirm or deny anyone’s involvement with the agency.”
Asked about Seagal, a Washington insider with ties to the intelligence community said that it would be unlikely that someone who worked for or with the CIA would publicly acknowledge such activity.
Maybe so. But don’t tell that to Gary Goldman, a close friend who offers substantiation for Seagal’s claims. The 46-year-old Army veteran is perhaps best known as one of the key participants in an unsuccessful 1982 Laotian POW rescue mission led by retired Green Beret Lt. Col. James G. (Bo) Gritz.
Goldman has been described in newspaper accounts as a soldier of fortune trained in anti-terrorist techniques. However, he prefers to dub himself an “unconventional warfare and intelligence specialist.”
A short man with a mustache and a muscular build who is an avid marathoner, Goldman keeps a low profile. When Seagal first gave the reporter Goldman’s phone number, he referred to Goldman by the code name of “Carol.” After speaking with the reporter several times over the phone, Goldman provided his real name--and agreed to meet for an interview at a breakfast spot in Brentwood.
“When something is going on in the world that Uncle Sam would like to influence, but doesn’t want to get directly involved in, the problem gets handled in a covert fashion,” said Goldman, who drives an ivory Alfa-Romeo and said he served several tours of duty in Vietnam from 1965-69. “An agency’s case officer will find someone who’s not officially involved with an agency--which is euphemistically known as a contract agent--who can perform that job.
“I think it would be fair to say that at some point in time, Uncle Sam recruited Steven because they thought he had particular talents that would prove useful on certain assignments.”
And this shadowy Uncle Sam figure--is he the CIA? “It could be the CIA or several other intelligence organizations that might be conducting clandestine operations. That could be the ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) or the ISA (Intelligence Support Activity), which is a unit of Army intelligence.”
Goldman tapped his hand on a coffee cup. “I know this much--I’ve been out with Steven on several missions, and he knows how to get things done. He has a certain high level of skill that you don’t just pick up reading fantasy magazines. I don’t think anyone would question his capabilities.”
Goldman said he and Seagal first bumped into each other in Asia, then later home in the States, where they--as he put it--”had reason to share information” and worked on several jobs together. What kind of jobs? Again Goldman was extremely circumspect.
“One involved the recovery of some items that were some place they shouldn’t have been,” he said. “Another time we were hired to do a quiet investigation which could confirm the location of someone who was, well, an unpleasant sort of person who our employers wanted to locate because he had caused problems for people.”
What did they want to do after they located him?
“Who knows?” Goldman said with a shrug. “Maybe just wanted to talk to him. Maybe take him to Jesus. Whatever.”
The average moviegoer may see “Above the Law” as just more Hollywood action, with duplicitous secret agents, sleazoid drug dealers and an avenging hero.
As director Andy Davis put it on the film set one afternoon: “What we’re really doing here with Steven is making a documentary.”
Seagal’s character--a former CIA operations officer in Vietnam--discovers that the agency is linked to domestic political corruption, a Central American drug connection, even an possible assassination attempt of a prominent U.S. politician.
But Seagal insists that the fiction is only a slight exaggeration of the truth. Some of his charges, particularly those about CIA-inspired disinformation and attempted coups, are no more grandiose than the admissions that the late CIA Director William Casey made in “Veil,” Bob Woodward’s controversial tale of CIA chicanery.
And much of the film’s story line could easily be adapted from this week’s headlines about Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega’s alleged ties with U.S.-backed Contra rebels and international drug runners.
However, you need more of a conspiratorial mind-set to buy some of Seagal’s other beliefs.
He suspects that AIDS “may have originated” with a botched CIA chemical warfare experiment, a charge that the U.S. government has claimed surfaced through a Soviet disinformation campaign.
And yes--he’s also a conspiracy theorist when it comes to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When a visitor seemed skeptical, Seagal snapped: “If you can’t figure out what went on behind the Kennedy assassination, then you’re not only not a rocket scientist, but you must have an IQ of about 16.”
Seagal often sounds like a zealot eager to exorcise the evil heathens--the heathens in this instance being his former comrades in skulduggery.
“The whole motivation behind me doing this film was my trying to make up for all the things I’ve seen--and done,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing us try to destabilize governments, prop up dictators and get involved with drug smugglers and crooks.
“I have very personal reasons too, even if they are sort of embarrassing, even humiliating. There was a time when I thought I was doing a good thing with good guys for a good cause. Looking back, I think I really wanted to be a warrior.”
Seagal fell silent. “It’s as if you go through a time in your life when you had to prove something to yourself--and the proof came from doing something brave or dangerous. For a while, I had this uncontrollable urge--this addiction to danger. Now I look back and I think, ‘Gee, what an idiot. I was risking my life just for the sensation of it.’ ”
It was late 1986, before Warners had given the green light to “Above the Law.” Was the studio really sold on Seagal? It didn’t hurt to make sure.
Someone at CAA--Seagal said he can’t remember exactly who--decided it might be a good idea for the Warners production team to have a first-hand look at this mystery man’s martial-arts skills.
They weren’t disappointed. With the Warners brass seated on a deserted studio sound stage, Seagal and several martial-arts pros put on a spectacular display of aikido mastery.
Dressed in full aikido regalia--white robes, baggy black pantaloons and bare feet--Seagal showed off his steely concentration, lightning reflexes and astounding power, flipping his assistants across the mats.
“The demonstration was quite miraculous,” Semel said. “With just a toss of his hand, Steven would send the other guy flying. I’m no martial-arts expert, but he had the ability to knock these guys up in the air so effortlessly--well, it was pretty astounding.”
Another Warners exec there that day was also impressed. “It must’ve been quite a sight to see all of us, in our suits and ties, sitting on these mats with our mouths dropping open, watching him do his show,” the exec said. “We were all blown away. We’d thought that he might be a star--but that show really convinced everybody.”
By early last spring, the wheels for “Above the Law” were rolling. The studio even sprang for a $50,000 screen test, with director Davis shooting several sequences from the script. Having Davis sign on was part of the plan. He’d directed Chuck Norris’ “Code of Silence,” a 1985 hit.
Another Seagal supporter joined the fan club about the same time. After meeting Seagal at a party, Paul Block, a veteran publicist at Rogers & Cowan, signed Seagal as a client early last year.
“We’d like to see him in the major magazines--Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire,” said Block, who also handles Stallone. “We also have an extra-added hook with Steven being married to Kelly (Le Brock), which would only enhance the campaign for play in a magazine like People.”
On location last summer, Seagal and a 40-person film company were jammed into a basement kitchen at the crusty old Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago. The crew was shooting a torture scene--and with the thermometer peaking at 100 degrees during a summer heat wave, it was torture just to be on hand, drenched in sweat, watching the day’s work.
Dressed all in black, his long, slicked-back hair glistening under the hot lights, Seagal glided by the center of the set, intently eyeing a rickety table and a pair of chairs.
He motioned to a burly stunt man who was acting as one of the bad guy’s stand-ins. “This is perfect right here,” Seagal said in a serene voice as he eased his frame into the chair. “How about if I flip you?”
The stunt guy seemed game.
Seagal sat down, allowing his body to sag for a moment. Suddenly he leaped up. “I’m going to take the gun right out of your hands,” he said, rocking his body forward as he grabbed the stunt man. “Then I’ll go--BAM! BAM!--and blow away those two bad guys over there.”
Seagal mimed the rest of the scene in slow motion. He spun around, whipped a fist in the air, as if bashing the jaw of another villain, then leaped back, kicking an imaginary foe in the groin. He dove in the air, one leg slicing into a bad guy’s midsection, an arm crashing into another’s face. Finally, Seagal pounced on the stuntman, pretending to break his neck and casually flip him to the floor.
“How’s that feel?” Seagal said, gently releasing the stunt man from his grip.
“No problem,” said the stunt man, shakily getting to his feet. “Especially if you’re not really going to break my neck.”
Realizing he was working with actors and stunt men, not aikido experts, Seagal took special care. So talk about irony. Who was perhaps the biggest casualty during the nine-week shoot?
Seagal broke his nose when veteran bad guy Henry Silva accidentally socked him during one of the takes for the torture scene. Blood pouring from his nose, Seagal was swept off to a hospital--and then went right back to work. To keep the swelling down and prevent a black eye, he stayed up most of the night, icing the injury.
Seagal felt terrible--and not because of his busted nose. “I knew something was going to go wrong,” he said later. “Henry was wearing a weighted glove, which was just ridiculous. We never should’ve had that on the set. We should’ve used foam--who would’ve known the difference?
“It’s not Henry’s fault. My biggest nightmare is having someone like Henry--whose eyes are bad and isn’t trained in stunts--to be swinging at me. I should have my own people in here, doing the stunts.”
Welcome to the nerve-racking pressure of movie making. “Above the Law” was budgeted at about $7.5 million--and with all the extensive action sequences and the pressure to finish the picture before the threatened Directors Guild strike, tempers often wore thin as time wore out.
Seagal, who had never been through this arduous process, often appeared testy because of the slow pace, the technical delays, the constant compromises.
“Sometimes I’ll tell Andy (Davis) that a scene isn’t going to work,” Seagal said, late one night. “And sure enough, when we see the dailies, it doesn’t look right. I just feel that I’m being shortchanged, that I’m not getting to show enough great martial-arts action.
“Everyone always says to me, ‘Don’t worry. Wait ‘til we cut it together. It’ll look great.’ But if we only had a little more money and some more time, we could really do this right.”
Watching Seagal in action at his West Hollywood dojo, you hardly get any scent of Hollywood.
The surroundings are so austere--a row of bare mats, Japanese prints on the walls and a small, wooden altar at the far end of the room--that you’d swear Seagal was a martial-arts monk, not a fellow being groomed for Hollywood action heroics.
In an open-necked white shirt, billowy, blue trousers and bare feet, Seagal has an imposing presence, standing almost a head taller than most of his pupils. Much of the time he wanders quietly across the mat-covered floor, watching each pair of students practice a series of deft, stylized movements.
When he is ready to give a demonstration, his class silently forms a long row facing Seagal, where the students--as a sign of devotion--fall to their knees and bow.
After offering a few words of advice, Seagal offers a brief lesson in aikido, which usually concludes with Seagal sending his assistant careening across the room. After Seagal turns and bows, his class return to their exercises. The mesmerizing display does wonders for morale.
“Martial arts is the one thing on earth that I do well,” Seagal said, relaxing after class. “Even when I was a little boy, I knew I wanted to study the martial arts. To me, this--the dojo--is home.”
Seagal gestured out toward the street. “I feel more at home here than out there.”
Seagal waved his arm around the room. “I love film, but this is the essence of my life. Movies are a bonus. It’s a wonderful expression, a fabulous art and I hope I turn out to be good at it. But this, the martial-arts, is my life.
“It’ll be interesting. If I become famous, people will probably come here because I’m famous and then the dojo will be a success--but not for the right reasons. I want students who come here because of devotion to the art, not because of the other stuff.”
Of course, Seagal--fledgling action hero, chum of Hollywood heavyweights--can’t escape that other stuff. He seems torn by conflicting desires--proud of his easy rapport with industry insiders, yet eager to keep a certain spiritual distance.
“I’m probably hypersensitive,” he said one evening at his dojo. “My work has trained me to pick up information very fast--and to be sensitive to my surroundings. When I first came back to the U.S., I could spot someone I’d see walking across the street and immediately know where they were from--Germany, England . . . whatever. I’d meet someone and say--you’re from Austria, huh? And I’d be right.
“But that same knack I had also made me very uneasy because I could see through people right away. I can tell when someone’s lying, or making something up. Before someone had gotten 20% of the way through a story, I’d know it wasn’t true.”
His visitor joked that Seagal probably has gotten plenty of practice using that sixth-sense since he’s been in Hollywood.
“Oh yeah,” he said, flashing an uneasy smile. “A lot of practice.”
It’s hard to find new tough-guy contenders. And it’s even more difficult to package and sell them. The Hollywood landscape is littered with the bodies of failures.
Only good movies
Get the Indie Focus newsletter, Mark Olsen's weekly guide to the world of cinema.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.