Family & Companions
Wesley Snipes first came to national attention as an actor during the early 1990s, and followed that with a prolific decade of work in which he proved himself to be among the most versatile and popular leading men in Hollywood, qualities he continued to demonstrate as his career moved into the 21st century. Though his athletic prowess made him an ideal action hero in films like "Blade" (1997) and its two sequels, he was also a skilled dramatic actor in films like "New Jack City" (1991), "Jungle Fever" (1991), "The Waterdance" (1992), and "One Night Stand" (1997), which earned him the top acting award at the Venice Film Festival. Snipes was equally adept at comedy, most notably in "White Men Can't Jump" (1992), and could transition gracefully from larger-than-life characters like his futuristic villain in "Demolition Man" (1993) to subtler parts like his uncredited turn as a smooth-talking bar patron in "Waiting to Exhale" (1995). Other highlights of Snipes' career included such projects as "U.S. Marshals" (1998) and "Chaos" (2005), as well as "Expendables 3" (2014) and "Chi-raq" (2015), the latter of which he also produced. He also took on his first regular TV role when he was cast as Mr. Johnson in the NBC crime drama "The Player" (2015). In this and other projects, Snipes continued to turn in the thoughtful, detailed character work that had distinguished his career from the beginning.
Born Wesley Trent Snipes in Orlando, FL, on July 31, 1962, he was raised in the Bronx and discovered his calling as an actor at an early age, attending New York's High School of Performing Arts from 1975-1977. His parents' divorce forced him to return to Florida, where he graduated from Orlando's Jones High School in 1980, after much involvement in the school's drama department. After school, Snipes persevered, finding acting work in regional Orlando productions and dinner theater; he also co-founded a street theater group called Struttin' Stuff. Eventually, he made his way back to New York as a student at SUNY Purchase, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1985. Snipes soon found work in television commercials, as well as on the Broadway stage, where he made his debut in 1985's "The Boys of Winter." That same year, he married April Snipes, with whom he had a son, Jelani, in 1988. The marriage ended five years later with a 1990 divorce.
A chance encounter with a casting agent at a talent competition led to broader exposure, and after a handful of roles on television series, he made his feature film debut as a high school football player in the limp Goldie Hawn comedy "Wildcats" (1986). Among his co-stars in the film was another aspiring young actor named Woody Harrelson, with whom Snipes would be paired in several future projects and become a close friend with. More supporting roles in features and television followed, but the most significant credit during this period was one that many viewers actually did not see. Director Martin Scorsese cast Snipes as the rival gang leader opposite Michael Jackson in the pop legend's acclaimed video for the song "Bad," in 1987, but Snipes was only featured in the extended version of the video. One who did see Snipes' performance was Spike Lee, who was sufficiently impressed with the actor's dynamic presence to offer him a role in his new feature, "Do the Right Thing" (1989). However, Snipes passed on the role in favor of a substantial part as a flashy and supernaturally fast center fielder in the hit baseball comedy "Major League" (1989). The exposure of that film, as well as a Cable Ace Award for an episode of "Vietnam War Story" (HBO, 1987-88), helped to propel Snipes toward a wider spectrum of exposure and popularity.
After a brief stint as a series lead in the ABC police drama "H.E.L.P." (1990), Snipes launched into a string of critical and box office hits that helped to solidify him as one of the most dependable and versatile actors of the early 1990s. He was all action as a narcotics cop determined to bring down drug kingpin Christopher Walken at all costs in Abel Ferrara's ultra-gritty "King of New York" (1990), then shifted gears to play a jazz saxophonist who outshines his band leader (Denzel Washington) in playing and romance in Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues." Snipes exhibited even deeper dramatic chops as a successful black architect whose relationship with a white secretary (Annabella Sciorra) stirs up a whirlwind of turmoil with friends and family in Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991). But the film that truly put Snipes on the map was Mario Van Peebles' exceptional crime drama "New Jack City" (1991). Snipes played Nino Brown, an enterprising and ruthless drug lord (patterned after real-life masterminds Nicky Barnes and the YBI crew) whose rise to the top of the Big Apple crack cocaine game is undone by his own lust for power and control. A massive hit with a wide range of moviegoers, the film earned Snipes an Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.
"Passenger 57" (1992) helped to mint Snipes as a credible action hero and leading man for all races in big-budget Hollywood productions. The slick thriller, about an ex-police officer (Snipes) tangling with international terrorists aboard an airline, benefited greatly from Snipes' two decades of training in martial arts, which he began studying as a self-described late blooming teen in the Bronx. Snipes followed this with another box office hit in Ron Shelton's "White Men Can't Jump" (1992), an exceptionally likable comedy about a biracial team of basketball hustlers that included some sharp commentary about racial stereotyping. Audiences responded overwhelmingly to the chemistry between Snipes and Harrelson, though their third film together, the crime comedy-drama "Money Train" (1995), failed to repeat the success of its predecessor.
Snipes scored a third hit - albeit on a much more modest scale - with "The Waterdance" (1992), Neil Jimenez's affecting drama about a writer who recovers after a paralyzing accident in a paraplegic rehabilitation center. Snipes was extremely affective as one of the center's longtime patients whose boastful personality hides a deep-seated loneliness and fear of rejection. For his performance, Snipes was nominated for a 1993 Independent Spirit Award. By now, Snipes was reaping the full rewards of Hollywood stardom; he had been named one of the "12 Most Promising New Actors" by Screen World magazine, and People counted him among the "Most Beautiful People in the World" in 1991. The latter fact was not lost on some of the most attractive female actresses in Hollywood, and Snipes was seen in the company of Halle Berry (his "Jungle Fever" co-star), Jennifer Lopez, and Jada Pinkett, among others.
He returned to Hollywood moviemaking with two sizable hits in 1993, both of which traded on his action hero skills; "Rising Sun," based on the novel by Michael Crichton, was a formulaic thriller about murders at a Japanese company, but benefited from the prickly on-screen relationship between Snipes and Sean Connery as a former police captain with insight into the Japanese mindset. Snipes then went over the top as a megalomaniacal super villain who escapes cryogenic prison to wreak havoc in a sterilized 21st century Los Angeles in "Demolition Man" (1993). Ostensibly a vehicle for the top-billed Sylvester Stallone, Snipes' gleefully wicked performance easily outshone the aging action hero, and earned him a 1994 MTV Movie Award for Best Villain. He then rounded out the year with a lackluster police drama called "Boiling Point" (1993), which failed to take advantage of its star or the recently revitalized Dennis Hopper as its flashy antagonist. That year also marked the first of Snipes' numerous run-ins with the law when he was fined $1,000 and given a two-year unsupervised probation for carrying an unconcealed firearm.
The year 1994 saw a downturn in Snipes' fortunes at the box office, though from a financial standpoint, he was still on top of the world. The actor netted a $7 million payday to star in "Drop Zone" (1994), a mediocre action-thriller about a U.S. Marshal (Snipes) who seeks revenge for the murder of his brother by an ex-DEA agent (Gary Busey) who uses skydivers to hijack a plane. Snipes later appeared to echo his "New Jack City" success as a urban drug lord in the moody drama "Sugar Hill" (1994), but the movie failed to connect with a wide audience. The year also found the actor back in the news after Snipes was charged for reckless driving after leading Florida police on a 30-mile highway pursuit. He was later required to perform 80 hours of community service.
Snipes made a bold career move in 1995 by playing a drag queen in the comedy "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar," which earned modest box office returns and a cult following, particularly among gay fans. Snipes, however, was reportedly unhappy with the end result and turned down several requests for a sequel. He returned to the action vein for the lackluster "Money Train," then made an impression with an uncredited cameo in "Waiting To Exhale" as a suave bar patron who attempts to pick up Angela Basset. Snipes then moved to television with an Image Award-winning turn as a principal who struggles to reconcile his own ambitions for his school with the creative drive of a student who has painted a portrait of Jesus as a black man in "America's Dream" (1997). Snipes also lent his voice to The Pied Piper in a 1997 episode of the multicultural animated series "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child" (HBO, 1995-2000).
Snipes' work in features had varying results as the 1990s drew to a close. He was a baseball player who finds himself the target of an obsessive admirer (Robert De Niro) in the dreary thriller "The Fan" (1996), and a police detective investigating a homicide with political connections in "Murder at 1600" (1997). Both performed moderately well, but not at the levels achieved by his previous hits. Snipes also gave a critically acclaimed performance in "One Night Stand" (1997), a drama about a successful television director (Snipes) who puts his marriage into turmoil after an indiscretion with a stranger (Nastassia Kinski). Snipes took home the Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival for his performance, but the film enjoyed a very limited theatrical release.
But Snipes bounced back in a major way with "Blade" (1998), an action-horror-thriller based on the popular Marvel Comics title. Snipes also produced and choreographed the fight sequences in this high-energy story of a half-vampire (Snipes) who learns to resist his inhuman urges in order to fight the undead. Snipes' extreme athleticism was a perfect match for the role, and the film grossed over $150 million at the box office. He followed "Blade" with what should have been another slam dunk - "U.S. Marshals" (1998), the sequel to the wildly successful "The Fugitive" (1993), and co-starring Tommy Lee Jones in a reprise of his Oscar-winning role as Sam Gerard - but the film failed to meet critics' approval. Its lackluster box office return seemed of little consequence to Snipes, who was once again riding high in Hollywood, and even received his star on the Walk of Fame in 1998 and an honorary doctorate from his alma mater at SUNY Purchase.
Snipes began to explore options behind the camera starting in 1996; through his company, Black Dot Media, he served as executive producer and narrator of the documentary "John Henrik Clarke: A Long and Mighty Walk," about the acclaimed author, historian, and civil rights activist. Snipes later served as executive producer on projects as varied as "Down in the Delta," a 1998 TV drama directed by Maya Angelou (in which he also co-starred), and "The Big Hit" (1998), a perversely eccentric action-comedy about professional killers with Mark Walhberg. Snipes also produced the highly rated "Futuresport" (1998), a sci-fi/action project for ABC, and presented the documentary "Masters of the Martial Arts" (1998), which focused on the foremost cinematic practitioners, including Jackie Chan.
Snipes also began developing a security firm that would provide trained bodyguards for high-profile clients; the company - called The Royal Guard of Amen-Ra - was launched in 1998, but found itself in hot water two years later when an investigation was launched into its connection to an extremist religious cult. Snipes' company sought to buy property in Georgia from the cult, though the sale was cancelled after the investigation was launched. The business deal was not the only aspect of Snipes' life that had gone sour by the late 1990s; his strategy of switching from high-energy action films to smaller dramas ran out of gas with 2000's "The Art of War," about a UN security official who finds himself the target of a massive conspiracy involving the U.S. government and Triad gangsters. The film, which Snipes also co-produced, was dismissed as ludicrous, despite Snipes' trademark brand of martial arts action. Its follow-up, a modest thriller called "Liberty Stands Still" (2001), was ignored in its fall release by the massive coverage of the September 11th attacks. "Disappearing Acts," a 2000 romantic drama about a construction worker (Snipes) who falls for a teacher (Sanaa Lathan), performed moderately well (thanks to its source material by Terry McMillan), but Snipes did not enjoy another substantial hit until 2002's "Blade II," which brought critical favorite Guillermo Del Toro on board as director. Reviewers were less than kind to the sequel, but audiences turned out in droves and made it the most popular of the film trilogy.
By the new millennium, Snipes was earning more headlines for his personal life than for his movie output. In 2002, he was the subject of a scandalous paternity suit that alleged he had fathered a child with an Indiana woman after they had intercourse in a crack den in 2000; the suit was dismissed when the biological father was located, but the allegations helped to briefly soil Snipes' character. The following year, the smears got even worse when R&B singer Christopher Williams publicly accused Snipes of abusing Halle Berry during their brief relationship in an attempt to defend allegations that he had inflicted injury on the Oscar-winning actress - an injury that resulted in Berry losing hearing in on ear. In 2003, Snipes married South Korean painter Nakyung Park, with whom he had four children. The marriage ended sometime prior to 2007.
Unfortunately, Snipes' fortunes did not halt their rapid decline as the decade wore on. He was arrested in the Johannesburg Airport for attempting to leave the country with a forged South African passport. He was later allowed to exit the country with his valid U.S. passport, but authorities reduced his immigration status to disagreeable. His film career also continued to falter, with only "Blade: Trinity" (2005) achieving any sort of box office return, though much less than the previous two entries. The film's success, however, was dampened by a lawsuit filed by Snipes against New Line Cinema and director David S. Goyer for allegedly failing to pay his full salary, refusing to include him in casting decisions (Snipes once again served as producer of the film), and reducing his screen time in favor of newer characters played by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel. The press later reported that Snipes had allegedly made death threats against Goyer and acted in an uncooperative manner on set, though none of this was substantiated in the suit, which went unresolved for several years.
The most devastating blow to Snipes' fortunes began that same year when Snipes defaulted on paying his property taxes in California, which totaled over $171,000. This was followed by a 2006 conspiracy charge, which alleged that Snipes and his associates had sought to defraud the U.S. government by filing a false tax payment and sending fraudulent tax payments to the Internal Revenue Service. Snipes was also charged with failing to pay taxes from 1996 through 2004. The actor responded by declaring himself a non-resident alien - which was incorrect, as he was a U.S. born citizen - and that he was a target by prosecutors, as well as the racial prejudices of the town of Ocala, FL, where his trial was to take place. In 2007, it was discovered that Snipes had failed to pay taxes on a home in Alpine, NJ, and the tax lien on the property was sold to a third party. It was later revealed that Snipes also failed to pay taxes on a home owned in Florida.
In January 2008, Snipes went on trial for felony conspiracy and fraud charges, and the jury returned with a verdict a month later. Snipes was acquitted on the felony charges, but was found guilty on three misdemeanor accounts of failing to pay federal income taxes; his co-defendants, Eddie Ray Kahn, a notorious "tax protestor," and Douglas P. Rosalie, were both found guilty of felonies. In April, the actor was sentenced to three years in prison for the misdemeanors, but posted bail and remained free pending an appeal of his conviction. Though limited in his travels, Snipes was able to move around in order to work, though in July 2008 a judge ruled that he exceeded his travel restrictions when he attended a party for the opening of a resort in Dubai. No additional charges were filed. Meanwhile, he continued making movies, starring in the direct-to-DVD release, "The Art of War II: Betrayal" (2008). Snipes' career continued to emerge from its long fallow period with the release of "Gallowwalker" (2009), a supernatural Western in which Snipes played a cursed gunman battling the undead. He next co-starred opposite Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke in "Brooklyn's Finest" (2010), director Anton Fuqua's crime thriller about three Brooklyn cops who find themselves wrapped up in the violence and corruption of the crime-ridden 65th precinct, following a raid on a notorious drug dealer. His excitement with new projects was cut short when, after years of fighting tax evasion charges, Snipes was taken into custody by federal authorities on Nov. 19, 2010, to serve his time at a federal prison, where he would serve his 3-year sentence for tax crimes.
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Portrayed jazz saxaphonist Shadow Henderson in Lee's "Mo' Better Blues"
Moved to the Bronx at age one
Moved back to Orlando, Florida, with his mother
Broadway debut in "The Boys of Winter"
Film debut in the Goldie Hawn vehicle "Wildcats"; first collaboration with Woody Harrelson
Appeared as Michael Jackson's rival gang leader in the Martin Scorsese-directed music video "Bad" (only seen in the long version of the video)
TV debut in the HBO anthology miniseries, "Vietnam War Story"
Turned down a small role in Lee's "Do the Right Thing" for the larger part of Willie Mays Hays in "Major League" (1989)
Cast as a regular in the short-lived ABC cop series, "H.E.L.P."
Played merciless drug lord Nino Brown in Mario Van Peebles' controversial "New Jack City"
Reteamed with Lee for the interracial romance "Jungle Fever"
Reteamed with Woody Harelson in Ron Shelton's "White Men Can't Jump"
Co-starred with Sean Connery in the film adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun"
Donned drag to play Noxeema Jackson in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar"
Reteamed with Harrelson for "Money Train"
Executive produced (also narrated) the documentary, "John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk"
Starred opposite Robert De Niro in "The Fan"
Was one of several prominent showbiz figures to provide funding for Lee's "Get on the Bus"
Played a detective investigating "Murder at 1600"
Won praise for his turn as an unfaithful husband in "One Night Stand"
Produced and acted in Maya Angelou's directorial debut, "Down in the Delta"
Made his network TV debut as producer and star of "Futuresport" (ABC)
Played an African-American superhero who battles a group of blood-sucking vampires in "Blade"
Cast as the escaped con purused by Tommy Lee Jones in "U.S. Marshall"
Produced Che-Kirk Wong's "The Big Hit"; film starred Mark Walhlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips
Received star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (August 21)
Produced and starred in the thriller "The Art of War"
Reprised role (also produced) in "Blade II"
Once again portrayed a vampire hunter in "Blade: Trinity"; also produced
Cast as one of Brooklyn's most infamous drug dealers in Antoine Fuqua's "Brooklyn's Finest"