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A star cools down

Times Staff Writer

In his “Blade” movies, Wesley Snipes saves the world by fighting off legions of vampires, repelling the bloodsuckers with martial-arts kicks and flying knives. These days, Snipes could use some of those superhero moves in his real life.

The 42-year-old actor, who once seemed to be on the same trajectory as his friend, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, saw his last film draw mixed reviews and only $12 million at the box office. His latest project, an action film called “7 Seconds” now filming in Romania, has no studio affiliation. And even if his third “Blade” movie, “Blade: Trinity,” is a hit when it comes out in December, Snipes faces the prospect of losing the lead the next time around to a pair of younger actors.

More than a dozen years after he dazzled with breakthrough performances in films such as Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” Snipes has been beset by an array of off-screen personal and financial difficulties as well. His Florida mansion is in foreclosure, his former agency had to file a claim against him to collect an overdue debt and an admitted former crack addict has taken him to court in a paternity case. While Snipes’ representatives describe her claims as the fantasy of a disturbed woman, a court commissioner in New York has issued a bench warrant for the actor, who could be arrested and forced to submit to a DNA test.

Not so long ago, Snipes was known as a “triple threat” -- good in comedy, action and drama. His roles were diverse: a dangerously charismatic drug lord in “New Jack City,” the endearing bigmouth in “White Men Can’t Jump,” the forbidden lover of Annabella Sciorra in “Jungle Fever,” the bleached-blond, blue-eyed villain in “Demolition Man.”

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But aside from the “Blade” movies, Snipes has not had a resounding critical or box office hit since “White Men Can’t Jump” in 1992 -- the year perhaps marking the climax of a career that broke through barriers and seemed poised for greatness.

“It looked like a star was born,” said Todd Boyd, a producer (“The Wood”) and professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinema-Television. “He certainly had opportunities. I don’t know if it was bad choices or what, but Wesley doesn’t really fit in anywhere now.... Today he is sort of a man without a country.”

Snipes, who is on location shooting “7 Seconds,” declined to be interviewed, citing the demands of his schedule. His representatives at United Talent Agency also declined comment.

Some who have worked with him say his story is a classic Hollywood cautionary tale -- one in which temptations abound and making choices becomes increasingly complicated as fame and fortune beckon.

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“Actors get to the point where somebody is saying no, no, no, but that is a little squeaky voice in the wilderness,” said his former manager, Dolores Robinson, who sued Snipes for back wages and was later countersued by the star. “Everyone else around them, people who are really taking from them, are saying yes, yes, yes. The person telling you no, no, no is suddenly the enemy.”

Others see a tinge of racial politics amid the bad breaks and bad choices. Snipes, after all, broke through casting barriers as a dark-skinned black man starring in mainstream Hollywood pictures. But as he became more successful, he stumbled, offending some in his African American female fan base. Not only did he publicly profess his love for Asian women, he is rarely seen at prominent black events or award ceremonies.

“Wesley is a treasure, and it would be nice if he were connected to the black community in a more public way,” said Marvet Britto, a publicist who has known Snipes for years. “No matter how famous or infamous you are, we will support you -- if you are someone who is a part of the fabric of the community.... With the right project and focus, people will quickly fall back in love with him as he is the original chocolate heartthrob.”

As New Line Cinema prepares for the December release of “Blade: Trinity,” friends such as movie producer Reuben Cannon are hoping Snipes can outrun more than the on-screen vampires.

“I think Wesley could still come back in the game. He is just one hit movie away from being an American box office star,” said Cannon, whose production credits include “Down in the Delta,” with Snipes. “That undefinable screen presence? He has it.... You can’t be a choirboy and also expect to be that good. I mean, look at Marlon Brando.”

Signed by CAA

Success came relatively quickly for the Bronx-born Snipes. He drew early notice for appearing as a street thug in Michael Jackson’s 1987 “Bad” video and within two years distinguished himself as Willie Mays Hayes in the film “Major League.”

He quickly was signed by one of the town’s top firms, Creative Artists Agency, then run by Michael Ovitz.

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“I thought there was something really special about him,” said his then agent, Donna Chavous, who left CAA and Snipes in late 1992 and now works at Intervention 911, which helps people with drug and alcohol problems. “He had a great presence when he walked into the room. He was into martial arts and he was very disciplined.... He knew what he wanted and what he needed.”

What he wanted was to be a superstar, a leading man.

But Hollywood was unaccustomed to his dark skin and unconventional beauty. Robinson said studio executives told her that Snipes was “too dark” and that they would never hire anybody “darker than Denzel.” But he broke through that barrier, landing roles with such notable directors as Ron Shelton (“White Men Can’t Jump”), Philip Kaufman (“Rising Sun”) and Mike Figgis (“One Night Stand”).

“He was the antithesis of what Hollywood and Middle America would accept as a hero,” said David Pollick, his former publicist. “His color in and of itself was a huge issue. He was a dark-skinned black man who defined a whole new type of sex appeal.”

Some black actors today credit Snipes with paving the way for those who don’t fit the “pretty boy” mold. Initially, he broke through by taking risks.

Against Chavous’ advice, he agreed to star as an unscrupulous drug dealer in Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City.”

“I didn’t really like the script when I read it, but Wesley saw it as an opportunity as an actor ... ,” she recalled. “It turned out to be a really good move on his part. That part took him to greater heights than ever before.”

Then came “Jungle Fever.” The story of a doomed interracial romance caught the nation’s attention and catapulted Snipes to stardom. He was featured in Ebony and landed on the covers of Jet and Newsweek. The Washington Post dubbed him “the most celebrated actor of the season.”

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But his fame did not help him in spring 1991 when LAPD officers, responding to a stolen vehicle report, stopped Snipes and forced him to lie spread-eagle on the pavement with a gun to his head. Snipes was driving a rental car from the set of “The Waterdance,” an independent movie he was filming. Someone on the set had mistakenly reported the car stolen.

It was a huge blow to Snipes, according to Robinson and Chavous, both of whom went to the police station to get him out.

“He was probably thinking, ‘Here I am making all these moves in the entertainment industry, being respected by the audience and the industry, and on the other hand being treated like a criminal by the police,’ ” said Chavous. “You are striving to make certain moves in your life and think that things will be different and they are not.... You have more money, more problems. It was a sour/sweet time in his life.”

Indeed, as Snipes’ fortunes rose -- by 1993, after starring in “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Passenger 57,” he was commanding $10 million per picture and a 10% gross profit participation, Robinson said -- his legal woes mounted.

In August 1993, he was arrested in Hollywood after he got into an accident and paramedics found a concealed 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol on him. He pleaded no contest.

That October, Snipes flew to Rome with Pollick and his then bodyguard, Lee Weaver, to promote “Rising Sun.” As the limo pulled up to their hotel, Snipes and Weaver got out of the car and, according to Pollick and Weaver, got into a fight that left both men bleeding and in shock.

Weaver says he quit. A few weeks later, Snipes requested and was granted a temporary restraining order against his former bodyguard, after he alleged that he was “in fear for his safety.” Snipes later filed a breach-of-contract suit against Weaver as well, though it was eventually dropped, and the restraining order eventually expired.

Snipes’ career began to move in another direction. He accepted roles in films that went nowhere (“Sugar Hill,” “Drop Zone,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” “Money Train”) and, as the years went by, passed on movies that might have benefited his career (according to two sources, those include “The Hurricane,” which eventually earned Washington an Oscar nomination).

In May 1994, a woman named Loretta Marshall filed suit against Snipes alleging that a year earlier at the Glam Slam Nightclub, Prince’s old club in downtown L.A., the actor had spilled a drink on her and then told her, “Smile or I will seduce you and make you smile.” He then grabbed Marshall’s crotch, according to the suit. The case was settled confidentially. Two months after that suit was filed, Snipes pleaded no contest to reckless driving in a Florida court after leading police on a 120-mph, 30-mile motorcycle chase before crashing. He was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service, fined $500 and placed on six months’ probation.

By now, Robinson and Snipes had ended their relationship. She sued the actor for back wages and he countersued, alleging that as his manager, she had illegally worked as an agent procuring deals for him.

Snipes’ suit was dismissed. Robinson’s suit was later settled for an undisclosed amount.

In the meantime, Snipes had, perhaps unwittingly, offended some of his fans. Although he received a Golden Lion acting award at the Venice Film Festival in 1997 for his performance as Nastassja Kinsky’s philandering love interest in the steamy independent film “One Night Stand,” the movie did not sit well with some of his African American female fans, who did not appreciate his portrayal of a man cheating on his wife with a white woman.

He further infuriated that base when he told reporters in 1998 about his love of Asian women. Snipes is married to Nikki Park, a painter of Korean ancestry, with whom he has two children. Snipes has an older son from a previous marriage.

“It was perceived that he preferred Asian women over black women on the basis of stereotypes. A lot of black women are upset about that -- they still are,” said Kamal Larsuel, a Snipes fan who writes film reviews on the movie website threeblackchicks.com. “Whenever I do a review on his movie I’ll get feedback that says, ‘I don’t go see his movies anyway.’ Or if the movie does not do well, they would say, ‘Serves him right for dissing black women.’ At this point it has reached urban-legend proportions.

An image problem

Snipes’ image has not been helped by his persistent legal woes.

In 2002, the William Morris Agency took the rare step of filing a claim against the actor, a onetime client, over a $500,000 loan before it was finally repaid last year. The agency declined comment other than to say the matter had been settled.

Then last summer, his 7,375-square-foot Isleworth, Fla., mansion, assessed at $1.7 million in 2002, was auctioned off for $636,000 -- nearly $400,000 less than he paid for the property in 1993, according to property records. Snipes is contesting the sale, saying the mortgage was signed with a forged signature.

A judge ruled against Snipes last year and moved forward with the sale of the house, which has a seven-car garage and five bathrooms, but Snipes’ lawyers are appealing.

Then there’s the paternity suit.

Snipes’ lawyer says the claim is an example of a judicial system gone awry, a case in which a movie star made an easy target and race has played a factor.

“This is a deeply repulsive proceeding,” said Robert Bernhoft, a Milwaukee-based attorney representing Snipes. “What is troubling to us is that we don’t believe that if she had filed a paternity suit against, say, Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio it would have gotten this far.”

Snipes has told his lawyer that he does not know Lanise Pettis, who was a crack addict at the time she conceived the baby she claims is Snipes’ son. The Indiana woman, who said she has since stopped using drugs, filed suit six months after the birth of her now 3-year-old boy. Pettis says they met more than a decade ago in Chicago through mutual friends.

Snipes refused to take the DNA test and failed to show up at his hearing. Bernhoft did not represent him then but argues that Snipes did not want to lend credibility to the suit by showing up and taking the test. In July of last year, a bench warrant was issued in New York for his arrest. Bernhoft says he does not know why the suit was filed in New York, since Snipes does not reside there.

According to Bernhoft’s investigators, who interviewed her last year, Pettis is a fantasist. They claim she told them that Snipes and government agents landed by helicopter in her Michigan City, Ind., neighborhood, abducted her at gunpoint and flew her to a secret location in the Caribbean where they held a secret marriage ceremony against her will.

Pettis, 33, would not comment on that account, but said: “I would have appreciated a response in court. I am ready to step up to the plate. All it takes to solve the whole matter is a simple paternity test. And I am not backing down from that.”

Indiana prosecutors declined to comment on the case, citing privacy laws.

As Snipes tries to clear up his legal problems, he may have some fences to mend in Hollywood as well.

On the set of “Blade: Trinity” the actor’s relationship with writer-director David Goyer was so contentious that in January, after the film had wrapped, Snipes wrote a five-page letter to New Line Cinema’s co-chairman and founder, Bob Shaye, complaining about his treatment on the film. The letter, on stationery labeled “From the Desk of Dr. Wesley T. Snipes,” outlined Snipes’ concern that his character, Blade, had been sidelined in favor of “two new ‘younger’ characters,” played by Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds.

“As I recall, the movies are titled ‘Blade’ and Wesley Snipes is the actor/artist that brought the comic book character to life,” read the letter, whose contents were confirmed by two sources.

New Line executives declined comment. Goyer, who also wrote the first two “Blade” films, now shrugs it off.

“There has always been a little bit of drama on the ‘Blade’ sets,” Goyer said. “They are all edgy characters, they have a certain amount of darkness in them.... That is why we cast Wesley in the lead.... It became clear to me that Wesley is a very Method actor. When he is doing a ‘Blade’ movie he is Blade and he acts like Blade. Blade is edgy and bristly.”

Hollywood is well known for pardoning bad behavior -- as long as the star performs at the box office. And the Blade films, unlike other Snipes movies of late, have done handsomely, racking up worldwide grosses of $286 million and $250 million in domestic DVD sales. Snipes himself has earned a progressively larger paycheck for each of the films, estimated at $8 million for the first and $12 million for “Blade: Trinity.”

But time may be running out. New Line has a contractual option to make another “Blade” movie with Biel and Reynolds, and if Dec. 10’s “Blade: Trinity” is a success, a fourth movie could star the young actors and not Snipes.

Michael De Luca, the executive who brought the “Blade” series to New Line Cinema, said Snipes’ career reflects the way Hollywood works. Success is a combination of “smart choices” and having “decent parts offered.”

In Snipes’ case, there is still hope, said De Luca, now a producer at Sony.

“I still think the promise is there,” he said. “Once you are a movie star, you are always a movie star. All it takes is one more film to put you back on top.”

Times staff writer John Horn and research librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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