Sure, He's Making a Box-Office Killing—but Who Is Steven Seagal?
In his trilogy of bone-crushing action films, capped by the current Marked for Death, Steven Seagal has faced down his share of drug lords, crooked cops and lower-level sleazeballs. But on a recent night in Brooklyn, N.Y., when fans broke through the barricades to steal a glance of Seagal on the set of his new project, The Price of Our Blood, the 6’4″ master of martial-arts mayhem ran for cover. There’s nothing, he says, that he fears more than becoming the big screen’s newest prince of violence.
Sorry, big guy. With box-office and video receipts of Marked for Death, Hard to Kill (February) and Above the Law (1988) topping a muscular $100 million, the wickedly handsome Seagal has no place to run and no place to hide. “Seagal is the latest and suavest inheritor of the Charles Bronson-Chuck Norris-Bruce Lee action film mantle,” praised New York Times film critic Janet Maslin in her review of Hard to Kill.
Such words hurt Seagal, 38, more than a karate kick to the solar plexus. “I don’t consider myself a martial-arts star,” he has insisted. “I’d be offended and disappointed if I got a reputation as a martial-arts star.”
If not a martial-arts star, then how do you define this impeccably tailored, ponytailed man who squashes his enemies like cockroaches but never raises his voice above a bedroom murmur? Until just a few years ago, Seagal, a college dropout with no acting experience, was teaching aikido, a Japanese martial art, at the dojo (martial-arts school) he owns in Los Angeles. Suddenly, helped by a high-powered agent (Michael Ovitz of Creative Artists Agency), an enthusiastic studio (Warner) and a model-actress wife (Kelly [The Woman in Red] LeBrock), he was starring in a movie. His rise from seeming obscurity, coupled with a murky past and rumored links to the intelligence community, only added to his mystique.
Despite his current position in the white-hot center of the Hollywood star-making machine. Seagal remains an enigma. Stories about him abound, most of them of his own telling. His tendency to twist and embellish the truth has long puzzled friends. Says an associate: “He’s a complex guy with insecurities and imaginary enemies. He’d be fine if he’d just keep his mouth shut.”
He won’t. On Oct. 3, on national TV, Seagal told Arsenio Hall that “a lot of my youth” was spent in Brooklyn. A visit or two, maybe. But Seagal’s mom, Pat, says he was born in Lansing, Mich., and that Steven and his three sisters lived outside Detroit before the family moved to Fullerton, Calif., when he was 5. There, Pat worked as an emergency medical technician, and her husband, Steven Sr., taught high school math.
Although Seagal likes to paint himself as an urban “street kid” whom the Fullerton youths saw as “some kind of crazy gangster,” Pat says her son was frail and suffered from asthma. “He was a puny kid back then,” she says. “But he really thrived after the move [from Michigan].”
Seagal, Pat recalls, spent a deafening part of his teen years holed up in the garage playing rock music. When he wasn’t pumping up the volume, he was pumping up his aikido abilities at a local dojo. “He worked with this nice old Japanese man at a dojo in Garden Grove,” Pat says. “He encouraged Steven to go to Japan.”
Just when Seagal packed up and left for Japan is another confusing matter. During various interviews, he has indicated that it was anywhere from 1968 to 1973. According to enrollment records at Fullerton College, he attended classes there from the fall of 1970 and left after the fall of 1971, putting him at age 19 before he could have departed for a long stay in Japan. The date of his departure is only an issue because Seagal has claimed that he studied with Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of aikido, who died in 1969. “That story is bull,” says Terry Dobson, a fifth-degree black belt who studied with the master from 1961 to 1969. “[Back then] I never heard of Steven Seagal.”
Whatever the course of his travels, by 1974 Seagal was back in California. That year he met Miyako Fujitani, now 43, a second-degree black belt and daughter of an Osaka aikido master who had come to Los Angeles to teach aikido. Seagal, Miyako remembers, pursued her aggressively. It was like I was in a dream,” she says. “That passion made him look very attractive to me.”
When Miyako returned to Osaka, Seagal went with her. The following year they married and had a son, Kentaro, now 15. A daughter, Ayako, now 11, followed. While Seagal is often trumpeted as the first non-Asian to open a dojo in Japan, the school at which he taught belonged not to him but to Miyako’s family. She and her brother still teach there, and her mother is the chairwoman.
It was during Seagal’s period in Japan that his activities took a turn into intrigue. As he has told, then denied, the story, he met some people “from a particular” agency. “These guys were my students. They saw my abilities both with martial arts and with the language,” Seagal told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “You can say that I became an adviser to several CIA agents in the field, and. through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors.”
Some of the powerful people for whom Seagal claims to have done security work are the Shah of Iran, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. While it is the CIA’s policy neither to confirm nor deny the identity of its operatives, sources familiar with the agency say Seagal’s tale is improbable. Still, that hasn’t stopped the star from trotting it out whenever he sees the need. On the 1988 talk show circuit for Above the Law, an action melodrama about CIA crazies, he told Jane Pauley, “There are certain parts of the movie that are very autobiographical.”
Miyako confirms that Seagal was away for long periods during their 10-year marriage but is hazy about his whereabouts. “My children don’t have any memory of him as a father,” she says, adding that they have seen Seagal when he has visited Japan and that Kentaro visited his father in Los Angeles two years ago. Seagal, she says, also pays a small amount of child support.
In the early 1980s, Seagal was hopping back and forth between east and west, opening up dojos first in Taos, N.Mex., and later in Los Angeles. It was during this footloose period that he met Kelly LeBrock, who was newly divorced from Victor Drai, producer of her movie Woman in Red.
By the fall of 1986, LeBrock, then 26, was a lady in maternity clothes. When Miyako learned about LeBrock’s pregnancy, she granted Seagal a divorce. Seagal’s daughter, Annaliza, was born in the spring of 1987, and he and LeBrock married in a ceremony in their Beverly Hills home that September. Their son, Dominic, was born last June.
With a glamorous wife and a list of students that reads like a Hollywood Who’s Who (including James Mason and James Coburn), Seagal began making powerful connections. In 1987 CAA head Michael Ovitz, another Seagal student, introduced him to Warner’s top brass by arranging for him to give the executives an aikido demonstration. “Michael went far beyond the role of just being Steven’s agent,” recalls Terry Semel, president of Warner. Not only did Seagal score a starring role in Warner’s Above the Law, he garnered story and producing credits as well. But on Hard to Kill and Marked for Death, Seagal became embroiled in disputes over the writing credits, with the Writers Guild of America rejecting his bid for a share of the authorship. “A screenplay credit is something Seagal wants very badly,” says Mark Victor, co-producer of Marked for Death. “But I don’t think anyone is looking to hire him as a writer.”
Currently scheduled for three action films, Seagal tries to spend as much time as he can on his 180-acre ranch outside Santa Barbara. Here the martial-arts garb is replaced by blue jeans and cowboy boots, and the family, including Annaliza, 3, and her pony, often go riding in the hills. “They’re real homebodies up at that ranch,” says Pat.
If this picture of domestic bliss seems to clash with Seagal’s slice-’em, dice-’em screen image, he hopes someday to change that. “I’d rather make Terms of Endearment than Commando,” he has said. “I want to make a movie that can grab people by the heartstrings.” Ouch!
—Mary H.J. Farrell, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles, Janice Fuhrman in Japan