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In his 1990s heyday as an action film hero, Steven Seagal's martial arts prowess and earnest social agenda briefly gave competitors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone a run for their money. However by the end of the decade, Seagal had lost his studio deal with Warner Bros. and was relegated to the world of low budget, direct-to-video films, where he remained in obscurity until he resurfaced in "Steven Seagal: Lawman" (A&E, 2009- ), a reality show that followed the 59-year-old's adventures as a volunteer law enforcement agent. It was hardly a surprising development for an actor who had spent his career enthusiastically aligning himself with his screen characters, adopting their noble adventures as his own and creating a mythical personal background that included wild claims about involvement with covert U.S. government operations and a familiarity with Brooklyn street life. While his arrogance and bravado well-served the Saturday night movie crowd who cheered the justice-seeker to victory in hits like "Hard to Kill" (1990) and "Under Siege" (1992), the hulking, ponytailed actor burned more than a few bridges in show business. Unrelenting bad reviews for his acting, his storyline...
In his 1990s heyday as an action film hero, Steven Seagal's martial arts prowess and earnest social agenda briefly gave competitors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone a run for their money. However by the end of the decade, Seagal had lost his studio deal with Warner Bros. and was relegated to the world of low budget, direct-to-video films, where he remained in obscurity until he resurfaced in "Steven Seagal: Lawman" (A&E, 2009- ), a reality show that followed the 59-year-old's adventures as a volunteer law enforcement agent. It was hardly a surprising development for an actor who had spent his career enthusiastically aligning himself with his screen characters, adopting their noble adventures as his own and creating a mythical personal background that included wild claims about involvement with covert U.S. government operations and a familiarity with Brooklyn street life. While his arrogance and bravado well-served the Saturday night movie crowd who cheered the justice-seeker to victory in hits like "Hard to Kill" (1990) and "Under Siege" (1992), the hulking, ponytailed actor burned more than a few bridges in show business. Unrelenting bad reviews for his acting, his storyline contributions, and his directorial debut "On Deadly Ground" (1994) - as well as changing tide in audience taste - all contributed to a career stall by the late 1990s. Instead of wasting time lamenting his lost glory days, the 6'4" actor donned an actual badge and took to the streets where he could continue fulfilling his self-image as a mythical man of honor.
Seagal was born on April 10, 1950, and spent his early years in Lansing, MI before his family relocated to Orange County in Southern California when Seagal was around five years old. A few years later, he discovered a local martial arts school where he began training in karate and aikido. He trained up through high school - where he was remembered as a bully - and made a few failed attempts at completing community college. In 1974 he met his first wife Miyako Fujitani, who was Japanese, and moved with her to Japan where he became an instructor at her family's martial arts studio in Osaka. But after several years and two children, Seagal was anxious to move back to the United States to start his own business and launch a career in entertainment. He left his wife and family behind in 1980 and moved to Los Angeles, where his first attempts to open a martial arts dojo failed. Looking to infiltrate the film business, he got his feet wet training film stars, working as a bodyguard, and as a fight coordinator on John Frankenheimer's "The Challenge" (1982). He also began creating film vehicles for himself by writing action-oriented scripts, which led him to change the pronunciation of his name from the standard SEE-gal to SeeGAHL, which he believed sounded less ethnic.
A second attempt at opening a martial arts school, this time in West Hollywood, was more successful for Seagal. In 1984, he married a second time to former "Days of Our Lives" (NBC, 1965- ) actress Adrienne La Russa, having not bothered to divorce his wife Miyako who was still in Japan. Less than a year into that marriage, he boosted his Hollywood profile when he began a relationship with his self-proclaimed "destiny" - model-actress Kelly LeBrock, best known for her work in the Gene Wilders comedy "The Lady in Red" (1984) and as the computer-created goddess of "Weird Science" (1985). His second wife, La Russa, filed for an annulment; his first wife, Fujitani, filed for divorce, leaving Seagal free to marry his pregnant girlfriend, LeBrock. Meanwhile, Seagal formed a second relationship that would secure his almost overnight transformation into movie star. While the origin of their initial meeting was highly disputed in Hollywood, at one point around 1985 or 1986, Seagal caught the attention of Michael Ovitz, then head of Creative Artists Agency and considered the most powerful agent in Hollywood. In an unprecedented move, Ovitz took the unknown actor under his wing and facilitated his deal at Warner Bros., which cast him in the urban cop drama, "Above the Law" (1988), for which Seagal provided the story, served as producer and played the lead - a CIA operative in Vietnam who later exposes the corruption of Chicago government officials. The film was an unexpected success, giving Warners a strong presence in the lucrative action film genre and establishing Seagal's signature mix of towering bravado, extreme violence and earnest attempts to address social issues.
Critics carped at Seagal's modest acting abilities, but the ponytailed actor cemented his popularity as an action hero with a string of financially successful three-word-titled follow-ups - "Hard to Kill" (1990), co-starring wife LeBrock; "Marked for Death" (1990), in which he took on the evils of drug dealers; and the self-explanatory "Out For Justice" (1991). Onscreen, Seagal's larger-than-life presence alternated between Eastern, meditative serenity and vigilante violence. Off-screen, Seagal had already earned a reputation as arrogant, as well as prone to autobiographical delusions, ranging from his dubious claims of having been involved with the CIA in Japan to claims that he was Italian - that is, until his mother cleared up his Jewish and Irish lineage in a magazine interview. His moral universe was further brought into question when his entire team of four personal assistants quit simultaneously and threatened sexual harassment lawsuits. On top of that, a number of associates came forward with stories of Seagal trying to negotiate "hits" on people he felt had double-crossed him.
Despite his off-putting personal behavior, Seagal was a hero among the action film crowd and could deliver healthy box office returns. Warners upped the ante for the film "Under Siege" (1992), Seagal's first big budget title and one that earned the actor a $16 million dollar pay day to star as an ex-Navy SEAL (which Seagal once claimed to be himself) who thwarts the attempts of villains Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey from taking over a military vessel and its nuclear weaponry. Warner's gamble paid off and the film earned more than $100 million at the box office, giving Seagal the confidence to make his directorial debut the following year with "On Deadly Ground" (1994). While critics had never been kind to Seagal, they had a field day with his awkward attempts to inject environmental moralizing and proud portrayals of native peoples alongside high-octane fight sequences - culminating in Seagal's blowing up of an oil refinery, which is generally frowned upon by environmental activists for obvious reasons.
"On Deadly Ground," Warner's first Seagal-headlined, money-losing venture, hinted at the end of the ponytailed one's run in the spotlight. In the gossip columns, he claimed to have been poisoned by an enemy and subsequently saved by a Brazilian healer, while the nanny of he and LeBrock's children came forward to announce that she was pregnant by Seagal. Like those who came before, LeBrock filed for divorce. The inevitable sequel to Seagal's earlier smash, "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" (1995), followed, with the inscrutable star reprising his Navy SEAL aboard a train and delivering blockbuster crowds with the promise of some lively action scenes. But for his next outing, Seagal supported first-billed Kurt Russell in "Executive Decision" (1996), where some found his cool dispatch, taken in measured doses, to constitute one of the better moments of his screen career. Seagal finished up his Warner Bros. deal by starring as an Environmental Protection Agent investigating toxic waste in "Fire Down Below" (1997), but in the wake of the film's paltry box office returns, his contract was not renewed. Seagal financed and produced his next outing, the straight-to-video release "The Patriot" (1999), in which he starred as a doctor (and self-defense practitioner) trying to avert viral warfare.
In 2000, Seagal attempted to sever his 10-year producing relationship with business partner, Jules Nasso, claiming that he had arrived at a decision to stop making violent action films thanks to a spiritual guru. A year later, he took on the role of a Detroit police detective in "Exit Wounds" (2001), which served as a breakout platform for newcomer rapper-actor, DMX, and marked Seagal's last moderate box office success. In 2002, he teamed up with Morris Chestnut and rapper Ja Rule for the action crime feature, "Half Past Dead," portraying an undercover agent in a new high tech Alcatraz prison. But he made more news that year when he was finally sued for $60 million by former business partner Nasso for backing out of a four-picture deal between the two. The ongoing battle took an unusual turn when Nasso was arrested, and federal investigators alleged that he was acting in league with New York's notorious Gambino crime family to extort $150,000 from Seagal for every film he made with the producer. The macho action hero alleged that he was threatened with violence if he did not cooperate, and he was later called to testify before a grand jury about the incident in an attempt to nail over a dozen suspected organized crime figures. Known far and wide for his heightened sense of reality, Seagal was not seen as the most trustworthy witness by the defense, who harangued him about his many tall tales from the past.
"The Foreigner," "Belly of the Beast" and "Out for a Kill" - all starring Seagal - were released straight to video in 2003. For the remainder of the decade, Seagal churned out half a dozen more low-budget, highly moralizing home entertainment offerings to action film cultists and ironic humorists. With the 2009 debut of "Steven Seagal: Lawman" (A&E, 2009- ), a general public who had long ago lost track of the brief superstar learned that for years, he had been not only getting paunchier, but visiting the city of New Orleans and volunteering with the reserve unit of the Jefferson Parish sheriff's department. A record-setting three million-plus curious viewers tuned in to the premiere to ride shotgun with the larger-than-life character as he patrolled the streets and helped train the force in martial arts and marksmanship. Hailed as one of the fall season's most unintentionally funny new series, "Steven Seagal: Lawman" raised the actor's profile enough that he finally made it back to theaters at the bequest of the ever-ironic Robert Rodriguez, who cast Seagal in his first villainous role as a drug lord in the 2010 release "Machete."
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CAST: (feature film)
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In March 2002, Seagal and his Steamroller Productions were sued for $60 million by producer Julius Nasso who alleged that the actor breached his contract to appear in four films, one of which, "The Prince of Central Park", was actually made with Harvey Keitel in the role earmarked for Seagal.
"You have to create a conflict, a situation where you have a reluctant hero who wants to just go about his job. Something has to happen to propel him into a situation where he has to step up, at great sacrifice to himself, and get the bad guys. It doesn't work if the bad guys kill his mother's uncle's friend's neighbor's pet dog. You've got to make the stakes high." --Steven Seagal in response to the question: "How important is it in your films to have a woman get shot?" in Movieline, April 1991.
"Seagal starts with one other advantage, too: He has the ominous demeanor of a bad guy, so we're favorable disposed simply out of relief that he's on our side. But his real distinctiveness comes at the moment of the kill. Where some avengers regard the kill as necessary, but distasteful, Seagal savors it. He starts smiling when it's imminent. He may summon the victim with a mocking yoo-hoo, then look him in the eye and growl that nothing is forgiven as he sticks a sword through the slug's throat.
"Or, just as often, Seagal doesn't kill at all. That would be letting these vermin off too easy. Instead, he snaps an arm or a leg, sometimes folding it double." --David Hinckley in Daily News, April 30, 1991.
Seagal commands the title of "Shihan" - the Japanese word for Master of Masters.
According to some sources, Seagal organized security for the departure of the Shah of Iran's family from that country.
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