As a "lifelong practitioner of the martial arts," Steven Seagal says he is trained to remain calm in the face of adversity and danger.
"When the world is speeding by for others, I see things for what they are," the aging action hero intones in an episode of his new A&E show, “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” which premieres tonight. "A cock of the head, a foot planted forward or back, a flick of the wrist -- they all tell me something." Yeah, well, as a lifelong practitioner of journalism, I'm also trained to see things for what they are. And for what they're not. And Seagal's new show seems almost as far-fetched as his movies, which include "Under Siege," "Hard to Kill" and "Above the Law."
The show's conceit is that Seagal the movie star has also been Seagal the cop for the last two decades, working "major cases" in Jefferson Parish, La. This is no publicity stunt, promoters say. Seagal wore the badge with a quiet pride, "under most people's radar."
No longer. Viewers will now "ride shotgun" with Seagal and his "hand-selected elite team of deputies" as they cruise the streets in search of trouble.
The actor's relationship with the sheriff's office began about 20 years ago when Seagal was shooting a movie locally. According to Seagal, then-Sheriff Harry Lee asked him to teach some of his officers martial arts.
"He was so pleased with what I was doing he asked me to come onto the force and be one of his cops," Seagal recalled in one episode.
As the actor speaks, a black-and-white photo of him raising his right hand in what looks like a swearing-in ceremony appears on the screen, creating the impression it was taken when he first joined the department. At closer inspection, however, it appears the photo was taken 20 years -- and at least 20 pounds -- after the fact.
Seagal says he attended a police academy in Los Angeles and has a certificate from Peace Officer Standards & Training (POST), an organization that accredits police officers. POST officials in California and Louisiana said they had no record of Seagal being certified.
Attempts to reach Seagal were unsuccessful and a spokesman for the show did not respond to queries about his qualifications.
Though the show's promotional materials described Seagal as a "fully commissioned deputy" and Seagal introduces himself as a "deputy sheriff," he is in fact part of the department's reserve program of about 200 volunteers. His rank of deputy chief is purely ceremonial.
Friday, 8:35 p.m.
"These are the 'jects. You know, the projects," Seagal says as he and his partner roll by in an SUV and the actor takes note of suspicious head cocking, feet planting and wrist flicking.
But moments later a radio call about a carjacking tests the actor's inner Zen. As the suspect speeds by, Seagal begins yelling and slapping on the side of the vehicle in which he is the one riding shotgun.
"Get him, Johnny! Get 'em!" Seagal tells the driver, Col. John Fortunato.
As Fortunato puts the pedal to the metal, Seagal scans the road ahead and begins barking out directions:
"To the right," he says.
"Steven, just let me drive," Fortunato replies tersely.
"Just telling you where the holes are," Seagal says.
Moments later, the partners arrive at the scene where the suspect has been apprehended.
"Where he at? Where he at?" asks Seagal, who either has very poor grammar or has cleverly adapted the vernacular of the streets.
There is much chaos, with someone yelling for a Taser, followed by the unmistakable zapping sound that emanates from the device. Seagal arrives just in time to restore order.
"Everybody calm down," he says.
But the excitement was just getting started. Or so it would seem from some of the episodes' provocative titles -- "The Way of the Gun" and "The Deadly Hand."
In reality, both depict mundane police work of the sort that would amount to a slow night in Los Angeles and other big cities. Seagal and his "team" deal with a drunk who was allegedly bothering women at a neighborhood bar; two guys they thought were drunk, but weren't; a guy who runs and discards a gun; another who runs because he's a felon; and some people who got into a ruckus in a parking lot.
One of the more exciting moments comes when a handcuffed suspect kicks out the rear window of an empty patrol car and an officer responds by shocking him with a Taser.
Seagal, who describes himself as one of the highest-ranking aikido instructors in the world, sees a distinct link between martial arts and law enforcement, which he frequently mentions.
"Criminals usually prey on weakness," he says. "They can smell it. Those of us who've studied the martial arts as long as I have, we can usually see those kind of predators."
But seeing them is not enough. Seagal trains fellow deputies how to do battle with bad guys so they don't get disarmed and shot with their own guns. He demonstrates a number of moves that leave his cohorts neutralized, in pain, or both.
"You can look at me as a movie star, and say, 'Hey, Steven Seagal here. He a movie star,' " he tells a group of deputies about to undergo training. "Or you can wipe that . . . out of your head and say, 'Steven Seagal can save my life.' "
As a "world class marksman," Seagal also shares some of his "amazing Zen shooting techniques."
"The Zen masters in Zen archery, they don't pull the arrow. They push the arrow. It's the same with that pistol," he tells one deputy apprentice.
"I want you to take that front sight," Seagal says, pointing to the officer's gun. Then, "I want you to put [it] right there," he says, pointing to the target. Now, "squeeze."
I don't know about amazing, but the technique is certainly Zen in its simplicity.
A news release promoting the show said Seagal has "regularly" gone out on patrol for the department. Asked just how regularly Seagal had been hitting the streets, Fortunato said it was "whenever it was convenient for his schedule," usually two or three times a year for a week or two at a time.
After 20 years of quiet crime fighting, Seagal said he decided to go public with A&E to "show the nation . . . the passion, commitment and fine police work that comes from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office," according to a news release promoting the show.
As for his hand-picked team of "elite" deputies, three of the four work under Fortunato in the department's public relations office -- not exactly the SWAT team.
"We decided we would pick and choose people who were seasoned law enforcement officers as opposed to some rookie," Fortunato said.
The team then went on the prowl with cameras rolling over a span of about four months, the colonel said.
"There's no second takes," he said. "This is for real."
Scott Glover covers law enforcement for The Times.