Beleaguered producer of martial arts movies hopes to strike gold again

Julius Nasso, right, onetime producing partner of Steven Seagal, is grooming a new action star, Tony Schiena.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Julius R. Nasso made a name for himself as the business partner of Steven Seagal, producing some of the ponytailed martial arts expert’s best-known films.

That was before Nasso’s own life began to resemble a Hollywood mafia saga and he landed in prison.

In the years since his release, Nasso has stayed away from martial arts films, sticking with independent movies and even a music documentary.

Now the 61-year-old Italian-born producer wants to battle his way back into the fight films that made his career.

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To do that, he’s turned to Tony Schiena, a former karate champion who has run international security operations and trained military and law enforcement personnel in hand-to-hand combat and escape techniques.

Nasso began as a Hollywood outsider, having founded a pharmaceutical supply company in 1974 before trying to break into the movie business. He got his first gig when Italian spaghetti western director Sergio Leone came to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1980 to film “Once Upon a Time in America.”

He earned his first credit for Seagal’s third feature, 1990’s “Marked for Death,” followed by titles such as “Out for Justice,” “On Deadly Ground” and “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.” Nasso’s movies with Seagal generated hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

But that all ended with Nasso in handcuffs. Federal agents arrested the producer in 2002, saying he had used Gambino family mob enforcers to extort money from Seagal.

Nasso said the accusations were a form of retaliation for a $60-million lawsuit Nasso filed against Seagal after the actor backed out of four films he’d promised to make. But Nasso was sentenced to a year and one day in prison and served about 10 months.

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Over a recent lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel, the compact Nasso said the whole experience was a nightmare.

“You can’t imagine what I went through,” he said. “I had real gangsters on the right, I had law enforcement on the left, and I had star power on the top.”

After the falling-out with Seagal, Nasso — who lives in Staten Island, N.Y., and has a movie studio there — produced the crime thriller “Narc,” starring Ray Liotta, and started Manhattan Pictures, which released “Enigma,” starring Kate Winslet, and Jean-Luc Godard’s “In Praise of Love.”

After his release from prison, Nasso had a hand in the documentary “Sing Your Song” and the straight-to-video thriller “Breakout” with Brendan Fraser.

Other things have changed for Nasso since the Seagal days. He’s in the process of selling his Universal Marine Medical Supply company. He and his wife of 14 years have a young daughter. His two sons, from a previous marriage, are 33 and 29.

But he remains protective of his reputation and resents how he was characterized during the Seagal dispute as a “hang-around” and a “self-styled” producer.

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In a meeting with this reporter, he toted binders filled with hundreds of pages of documentation of his career, including photos with stars on movie sets, clippings of trade magazine articles, and invitations to political and industry events.

Nasso met Schiena in London in 1998 and thought he would make a compelling martial arts movie star.

When they reconnected after Nasso’s ordeal, Nasso was impressed by footage of Schiena training soldiers for defensive tactics in combat areas, including Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq.

In his seminars, Schiena shows his trainees how to escape from chokeholds or a deadly garrote, break out of restraints and swipe captors’ weapons. His heavy-metal-soundtracked demonstration video box set is called “Not Taken,” a play on the Liam Neeson kidnapping thriller “Taken.”

Nasso said of Schiena, “I met martial artists all over the world during my tenure with Seagal. He’s the real McCoy. He’s got the credentials.”

With his legal troubles receding, Nasso found Schiena also had earned some acting credentials, with roles in Al Pacino’s “The Merchant of Venice,” the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle “Wake of Death,” small-budget martial arts pictures “Circle of Pain” and “Locked Down,” plus a TV pilot called “The Sheriff,” which was picked up by Spike TV but was not turned into a show.

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Now, Nasso and Schiena have teamed with Canadian director Damian Lee, who worked with Nasso on projects including “Breakout,” for what they hope to turn into a franchise, starting with a movie currently titled “Darc.”

“Darc,” to be shot this summer on a budget of about $10 million, was written by Schiena and is inspired by his real-life battles against the sex trafficking industry.

“I can draw from so much of what I’ve done,” Schiena said. “It’ll definitely translate into the movie.”

Lee said, “He’s been on the line in very dangerous situations. There’s a real gravitas to a guy like that.”

That pronouncement harks back to the Seagal days. When the movie martial artist first emerged, he hinted at having worked with the CIA, though his claims turned out to be exaggerated.

Some are skeptical that Nasso can succeed with another martial arts star. “You can’t repeat the past,” film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon said. Nasso “can’t do ‘Marked for Death’ or ‘Out for Justice’ or ‘Glimmer Man’ anymore. He’s got to do something different.”

Neither Schiena nor Lee is bothered by the less savory aspects of their producer’s past. Lee defended Nasso throughout the ordeal. Schiena said he’s glad his partner has some movie industry combat experience.

“Hollywood,” he said, “is a whole different kind of war zone.”