In the 1990s Steven Seagal was one of the top action stars in the business. If you don’t believe us, all you have to do is look at his box-office stats. Seriously: this is a guy whose movies have raked in a staggering $722,451,316 in global receipts. So it’s little wonder that his extensive knowledge of martial arts gained Seagal a reputation as a tough guy. Yet the star’s true toughness was put to the test in the early 2000s when he ran afoul of the mob. Yep, the real-life Mafia. And in one terrifying episode, Seagal said he was forced into a vehicle – before being whisked away to a rendezvous with gangsters. The story of what happened next is like the plot from one of Seagal’s movies.
It all started around the turn of the century. At the time, Seagal was starring in 2001’s Exit Wounds, an action movie that teamed him with rapper DMX. That film – despite getting bad reviews – was a modest hit at the box office. But when the star tried to replicate the same formula alongside Ja Rule for 2002’s Half Past Dead, the movie flopped. And from then on the actor has become firmly mired in direct-to-video territory – with only a supporting role in Machete seeing cinema screens.
So Seagal was struggling to remain relevant – but at least he wasn’t tied into the Mafia. Even as his theatrical movie career was mostly drying up, for example, Seagal dipped his toes into the world of music. He released two albums: Songs From The Crystal Cave in 2005 and Mojo Priest in 2006. Somewhat predictably, the critical response was negative. AllMusic wrote, “This music takes itself so seriously that it borders on delusional excess.”
Seagal also moved into reality TV in 2009 with Steven Seagal: Lawman. It followed the actor in his role as a reserve deputy sheriff in Louisiana and Arizona. The show lasted three seasons but, once again, was savaged by critics. Alan Sepinwall wrote, “Seagal has cemented his position as an accidental comedy savant.” So things were looking rough on a professional level. Was that why the Mafia got involved?
Because Seagal’s TV show was a far cry from the string of hits the star enjoyed for over a decade. We’re talking about big movies such as Marked For Death, Under Siege and The Glimmer Man. All of these explosion-filled flicks were produced by a guy called Julius R. Nasso, working with Warner Brothers. And Seagal and Nasso worked together without interference from the Mafia – at first.
Seagal and Nasso also became best friends on top of being successful business associates. They even lived next door to each other in Staten Island. Mind you, it’s probably not heard to be buddies with people who are making you millions of dollars. The three movies mentioned above alone pulled in an impression $235 million at the box office – and made Seagal one of the premier action stars of the era.
This marked an incredible rise for Nasso. The guy had founded a pharmaceutical company in 1974 before deciding he wanted to try to make it big in Hollywood. His first job in the movie business? A personal assistant to director Sergio Leone. And when Leone came to New York to film sections of 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America, Nasso learned on the job.
As for Seagal, his life pre-Hollywood has always been something of a web of mystery and alleged half-truths. It is known that he practiced aikido at a dojo in Fullerton, California, as a teenager. But then he later moved to Japan – and has claimed it was to study aikido with Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of the discipline. The accuracy of this claim has been disputed, though.
There was more confusion when Seagal hit the big time, too. It was widely publicized that he was the first non-Asian person ever to own a dojo in Japan. But People magazine wrote in 1990 that the dojo he taught at was actually owned by his lover’s family, not Seagal himself. The star also made a seemingly outlandish claim about his time in Japan doing “special favors.”
When speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 1988, Seagal alleged that he came into contact with people from a “particular agency.” He said, “These guys were my students. They saw my abilities both with martial arts and with the language. You can say that I became an advisor 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.”
But sources associated with the CIA told People in 1990 that his claim was unlikely – without officially confirming or denying it. Yet Seagal would bring it up again during the press circuit for Above The Law, the plot of which concerned an ex-CIA agent. He reportedly told the Today show’s Jane Pauley, “There are certain parts of the movie that are very autobiographical.”
Anyway, the important thing is that Seagal and Nasso were initially friends. As Anthony Bruno of TruTV wrote in his article “Steven Seagal and the Mob,” Seagal was attracted to Nasso’s demeanor. The star liked that Nasso presented himself as an honorable man. Well… as honorable as someone can be with an alleged mob connection.
Bruno revealed that the men first met at an Italian deli in Beverly Hills in 1986. Seagal was reportedly so charmed by Nasso’s old-school mob act that he began to tell anyone who would listen that they were related. The actor even claimed the pair came of age on the streets of Brooklyn together. This just isn’t true.
And Nasso saw Seagal as someone he could attach himself to break into Hollywood, according to Bruno. So the two men formed Seagal/Nasso Productions and began pumping out action movies. The production company later changed its name to Steamroller Productions after Seagal and Nasso went their separate ways in 2000. This was the year in which Seagal and Nasso had a serious disagreement.
What was the problem? Their production deal with Warner Brothers had ended in 1997 – but Nasso claimed he still had four more action movies lined up for Seagal to star in. And he’d apparently already sold the distribution rights for the upcoming films in foreign markets, meaning he had a lot riding on the deals.
To Nasso’s chagrin, though, Seagal decided he didn’t want to make violent films anymore. Why? They conflicted with his new-found Buddhist religious beliefs. In 1997 Tibetan Buddhist throne holder Penor Rinpoche said Seagal was a “tulku.” This meant he had the spirit of 17th-century Buddhist master Chungdrag Dorje inside him. Wow. Who knew?
So it’s no wonder Seagal didn’t want to shoot and kill people on-screen anymore. After all, how could a person who seemingly glamorizes violence be enlightened? Rinpoche explained, “Such movies are for temporary entertainment and do not relate to what is real and important.” He added, “It is possible to be both a popular movie star and a tulku.”
Taking no heed of his former pal’s spiritual beliefs, Nasso filed a $60 million lawsuit against Seagal in 2002. He claimed that the star had gone back on an agreement to develop and star in the four movies. Seagal flat out denied there was any such arrangement. But over time, the situation turned nasty, with Nasso allegedly trying to strongarm Seagal. It landed them both in court.
In 2003 Seagal appeared as a government witness at the racketeering trial of Peter Gotti and 16 other alleged associates of the Gambino crime family. Why was Seagal there? Well, Nasso and his brother, Vincent, were also part of the indictment. And it was all about to get kind of interesting.
The FBI had arrested Nasso on suspicion of conspiring with Mafiosi to extort Seagal. In other words, Nasso could have been using his Gambino connections to intimidate the actor. This underhanded plan was discovered completely by accident when the Feds heard Nasso talking with a local mobster in a New York Italian restaurant. Unbeknownst to the producer – and his organized crime pals – the FBI had the restaurant bugged.
During the trial, Seagal testified that he was first threatened by Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone in 2000. He said they’d wanted him to continue working with Nasso. The actor also alleged that they ordered him to pay the Gambino family $150,000 for every movie he made with the producer. Seagal said he tried his best to buy time by agreeing to a reunion with Nasso, reported CBS News.
Seagal claimed that Ciccone had said, “Look at me when I talk to you. We’re proud people. Work with Jules, and we’ll split the pie.” Seagal added, “These were people who were not going to let it go.” According to The New York Times coverage of the case, Seagal had earlier been “ordered into a car” to attend the meeting at the restaurant. So perhaps he was already a little intimidated.
The action star even alleged that he was told, “If you would have said the wrong thing, they would have killed you.” Nasso, for his part, was heard on the FBI wiretap warning the mobsters that Seagal wouldn’t crack easily. He seemed to think his former friend wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
According to TruTV, Nasso believed that the gangsters needed to create a situation in which Seagal was forced to bow to their demands. On the wiretap, he reportedly said, “You really gotta get down on him. Because I know this animal, I know this beast. You know, unless there’s a fire under his ass.”
Government prosecutors said in court that the FBI wiretap in the restaurant had recorded Nasso being told by the Gambinos to shake Seagal down for money. The mobsters were recorded laughing to themselves about how frightened the actor looked at the meeting, too. Being described as “petrified” would surely not have sat well with self-proclaimed tough guy Seagal.
But Seagal must have been worried about his safety because he testified that he was armed at the meeting. The actor stated, “In New York, I always carry a gun.” Yet the defense team rubbished Seagal’s take on the situation, claiming he was “a pathological liar,” reported CBS News.
Nasso’s attorney George Santangelo claimed that his client was nothing less than professional in his dealings with Seagal. Nasso simply wanted the actor to pay back the $500,000 he borrowed to pay his taxes. At one point during Seagal’s cross-examination, though, Santangelo jumped things up several notches when he enquired about something so outlandish it caused the actor to reply, “This is insane.”
Hear this: Santangelo wanted to know if Seagal had ever attempted to hire a former CIA agent to murder someone. Naturally, the judge struck the far-fetched question from the record – but not before Seagal exclaimed, “I’m not on trial here.” According to CBS News, Seagal said while he didn’t ask for federal protection from the Gambinos, he knew he didn’t want to cross them either.
“I’m a movie star,” stated Seagal. “If you want to keep making movies, you don’t want to start a war with these people.” When interviewed outside the court building, Seagal revealed to reporters that he was given no choice but to testify. He lamented, “I don’t think I accomplished anything other than to comply with a government order to testify or go to jail.”
In the end, Nasso pleaded guilty to the attempted extortion. And in August 2003 he was sentenced to one year in an Ohio federal prison. His sentence was relatively lenient, perhaps because the judge took umbrage with the government’s characterization of him as a “mob associate.” Rather, he felt Nasso’s misdeeds were a one-off.
So Nasso served his time. Yet the lawsuit that he had filed against Seagal in 2002 – before he went to prison – wound up rolling on for six long years. It was eventually settled in January 2008 when both men agreed to terms, out of court. Nasso told The Advance, “This civil case was about vindication and getting my reputation back.”
“I am relieved after six years of civil litigation that Steven and I have cleared up our misunderstandings, reached an amicable resolution and settled our differences,” continued Nasso. In terms of the money he was awarded, Nasso likely didn’t get the $60 million he filed for. The Los Angeles Times suggested that he would get $500,000 from Seagal. Either way, Nasso said, “I got a lot more than I expected.”
But Nasso didn’t just get money from his former business partner. He also persuaded Seagal to sign a letter advocating a presidential pardon for his conviction. The letter, which was sent to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Department of Justice, was important to the film producer, who was intent on clearing his name.
The letter from Seagal read, “I am writing this letter to indicate that I have no objection to and would support the application, when it is timely, of Julius R. Nasso for a presidential pardon.” Nasso told The Advance, “It speaks volumes that [Seagal] has agreed to support my application for a presidential pardon in the future.” Seagal made no comment to the media, though.
At this point, Nasso’s attorney Robert Hantman told Page Six that his client had returned to producing movies. He added, “Julius is now looking forward to hopefully getting a pardon. Seagal supporting him for a pardon is apropos of two close friends who had a falling out.” Yet, incredibly, history would repeat itself when Darc – Nasso’s next producing effort – turned into a legal saga as well.
In 2018 Nasso sued martial arts Grandmaster Jhong Uhk Kim, his partner in producing Darc, for $10 million. The film wound up streaming on Netflix, but attorney Hantman argued that Kim abandoned his responsibilities in financing and promoting the movie. This relegated the film to a “short shelf-life and near-certain financial failure.”
“It’s breaking Mr. Nasso’s heart that Master. Kim isn’t doing everything he can to promote an excellent film,” said Hantman. “Master. Kim isn’t following up on his responsibilities. He’s very concerned about him. He’s looking forward to meeting Master. Kim in a courtroom, but not in a dojo.” Nasso’s lawsuit claimed Kim’s actions were “unexpected, bizarre, intentional and grossly negligent.”
It was a sad turn of events for another of Nasso’s friendships. He had known Kim for over three decades, and Kim had even taught Nasso’s sons martial arts at one of his dojos in New York. The two men had sunk $6 million collectively into the production of Darc, which featured Kim and his sons in on-screen roles, reported The Advance.
As for the $500,000 Seagal agreed to pay Nasso back in 2008, that saga rolled on into 2012. In January of that year, Nasso sued Seagal again, claiming he hadn’t kept up with his payments. The lawsuit alleged that Seagal hadn’t paid two installments of $50,000 in 2011 and that Nasso wanted that money, plus 10 percent extra for “breach of settlement agreement.”
But that wasn’t all – and it never appears to be “all” when it comes to these two. Because Nasso had filed a similar lawsuit in 2010, which was resolved “only after significant legal expense.” Due to this, Nasso’s new suit read, “Considering the prior breaches by the defendant, we respectfully request that this court order that the outstanding and remaining payments under the agreement are now due, totaling $200,000.” So much for any kind of reconciliation.
But what about that other iconic 1980s action star? Once upon a time, Jean-Claude Van Damme was riding high in Hollywood, with hit flicks such as Kickboxer, Timecop, Death Warrant and Street Fighter. But now the work seems to have dried up – and the “muscles from Brussels” hasn’t headlined an American film in years.
Yep, make no mistake: Van Damme was one of the biggest names of his era. He even had a cameo on Friends – as himself. And in the episode, Monica and Rachel have a fight over who gets to go on a date with the movie star, such was his desirability at the time. Yet Van Damme is now 58 years old, and his heartthrob days appear to be well behind him.
This is particularly noteworthy, as many actors who also started out as hunky action stars have continued to enjoy success as they’ve grown older. Think Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. Van Damme, on the other hand, seemingly hasn’t had the same luck. In fact, he’s been stuck for years doing limited release or direct-to-DVD movies. So, what went wrong?
Well, Van Damme was actually a martial artist from a very young age. At ten, for instance, he started learning Shōtōkan karate, and at 18 he achieved a black belt in the sport. Van Damme also had ballet lessons, which can be invaluable to a fighter. “If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport,” the star told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989.
So, come 1982, the martial artist and one-time “Mr. Belgium” headed to Hollywood with the hope of making it in the acting world. And things went well. Van Damme in fact befriended another martial artist – none other than Chuck Norris – and found employment as a security guard at Norris’ bar. He also got to join the star’s movie stunt team.
Then in 1986 Van Damme appeared in the martial arts film No Retreat, No Surrender, in which he played a bad guy. The film was greeted with derision by critics, however, with the Los Angeles Times calling it an “amateurish clunker.” But for Van Damme, it was another stepping stone on the road to stardom.
Van Damme actually had his first hit movie with 1988’s based-on-a-true-story flick Bloodsport. The picture was a commercial success and established Van Damme as a martial arts film star. This led him on to films such as Cyborg, Kickboxer and Lionheart – and he was the fight choreographer on those last two as well.
Throughout the 1990s, too, Van Damme appeared in a handful of box-office hits. In 1992, for instance, he co-starred alongside Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier, which brought in more than $100 million globally. After that came 1994’s Timecop – which also earned in excess of $100 million and is still Van Damme’s biggest movie in commercial terms. That same year, Street Fighter – despite a critical drubbing – made millions as well.
But that period, it seems, was the peak of Van Damme’s star power. The sequel to Universal Soldier was released in 1999, for instance, and it fared badly both in both commercial and critical terms. And it would be many years before another Van Damme movie would receive a full release. In fact, the next one came in 2012 in the form of The Expendables 2.
Alas, it seemed that moviegoers were simply losing their appetite for the Van Damme brand. Throughout the 2000s, then, most of the star’s movies went straight to video or DVD. And then there were the actor’s personal troubles. In the mid-1990s, you see, Van Damme developed a cocaine addiction to go with his greatest successes.
In fact, Van Damme’s substance abuse led to him almost being fired from Street Fighter. “I couldn’t talk about it at the time, but I can now: Jean-Claude was coked out of his mind,” Street Fighter director Steven de Souza told The Guardian in 2018. “The studio had hired a wrangler to take care of him, but unfortunately the wrangler himself was a bad influence.”
Drink was sometimes involved in Van Damme’s Street Fighter on-set antics, too. According to assistant director Keith Heygate, who also spoke to The Guardian, “There was one time he was in the trailer, and he was quite [drunk]. My assistant couldn’t get him out; I couldn’t get him out. So I had to call the producer Chad Rosen to get him out. Then he came out with a bottle of champagne. I told him it was against health and safety to have alcohol on set. From that point on, he hated me.”
So Van Damme didn’t apparently endear himself to many people on the set of Street Fighter. “He had the presidential suite at the hotel, with a gym put into his room,” actor Roshan Seth told The Guardian. “Sometimes he wouldn’t turn up on set. The message would come through from him saying, ‘I have to pump up my muscles!’ And that was that.”
During the calamitous filming of Street Fighter, however, Van Damme did win over at least one person: his Australian co-star, Kylie Minogue. After all, the two allegedly had a fling while Van Damme was still married to his fourth wife, Darcy LaPier. And his relationship with LaPier had started as an affair, too.
Van Damme confessed to the infidelity in an interview with The Guardian in 2012. “Yes, yes, yes. It happened,” he said, after some coaxing. “I was in Thailand; we had an affair. Sweet kiss, beautiful lovemaking. It would be abnormal not to have had an affair. She’s so beautiful, and she was there in front of me every day with a beautiful smile, simpatico, so charming. She wasn’t acting like a big star.”
Yet this was a revelation to LaPier, who’d left Van Damme in 1997. She later revealed to the media that she’d been pregnant with the couple’s son, Nicholas, when the affair had supposedly taken place. LaPier informed FOX411’s Pop Tarts column, “I was shocked he would talk to the press about this all these years later to gain some notoriety. I didn’t know about it. I have had my feelings hurt, and I feel betrayed.”
“There is a lot of water under the bridge between us, but the fact is I was pregnant with our son at the time,” LaPier continued. “He’s almost 17 now, and I wouldn’t want him finding out all of this and being hurt by it, too.” What’s more, LaPier had actually met Minogue. “Kylie always seemed intimidated by me, and now I know why,” she added.
“I speak to [Van Damme] about once a week, so I will say something,” LaPier explained. “This is not cool.” She then threw another revelation into the mix for good measure. “I plan to see The Expendables 2, it looks like an amazing movie,” LaPier said. “I hope it does really well, because he hasn’t paid child support in seven years.”
There were some other tidbits about Van Damme’s ailing career in the 2012 Guardian piece, too. You see, although the star appeared in The Expendables 2, apparently he’d also been offered a role in the first one – but hadn’t taken it. According to Sylvester Stallone, Van Damme had declined the offer because he didn’t want to be seen being defeated in a battle.
“I wanted to set Jean-Claude against Jet Li, but he didn’t want to lose to Jet,” Stallone told The Sunday Times in 2010. “He didn’t think that was cool. But that’s why it would be cool: to have Jean-Claude beaten by the other man. Hey, they could have a rematch.” He added that Van Damme wasn’t “really into [his] gallows humor.”
In The Guardian’s interview, though, Van Damme denied Stallone’s account. He said the story was “bull****,” in fact, and claimed that he had turned the movie down because at the time he’d been working on a film called The Eagle Path. However, said movie, which is now titled Full Love, still hasn’t been released yet – while The Expendables made $35 million in its first weekend alone.
Yet Van Damme admitted in his Guardian interview that he’d become greedy early on his career – and it had spelled disaster. “I was f***ed up, man,” he confessed. “But you know, it was not about the money… I was making movie after movie, and in between movies I was doing promotion. I was tired. Everything I was touching was making money. Jim Carrey was being paid a fortune. And I wanted to play with the system. Like an idiot. Ridiculous.”
So following the success of Timecop, Van Damme reportedly demanded $20 million for his next contract. And after a major Hollywood studio turned him down, Van Damme told The Guardian, the star was “on the blacklist.” Universal stopped calling, in fact. And things spiralled from there. The actor’s drug use seemingly became worse and worse, for instance, and he was arrested for driving under the influence in 1999. Then, eventually, the action hero was informed by medics that he had bipolar disorder.
In 2011 Van Damme talked to the show Behind Closed Doors about his mental health. “Sometimes you’re gonna like me, and sometimes you’re gonna hate me,” he said. “But what can I do? I’m not perfect. I’m an extreme bipolar, and I’m taking medication for this.” People with bipolar disorder are generally at risk for substance abuse issues, too.
And there have been other setbacks in Van Damme’s career – some of which have tarnished his public image. For instance, in 2011 he attended a party in honor of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. Yet Kadyrov has been repeatedly accused of allowing multiple human rights violations to be committed under his rule.
Human Rights Watch even released a statement to The Hollywood Reporter in which they called out the stars who attended the party. “Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a litany of horrific human rights abuses,” it read. “It’s inappropriate for stars to get paid to party with him. It bolsters his image and legitimizes a brutal leader and his regime.”
Other stars spotted at the event subsequently apologized. Yet despite supposedly being heard to profess his love for Kadyrov at the party, Van Damme did not say sorry. And a couple of weeks later he actually went back to Chechnya to dine with the disgraced leader and accompany him to the theater. It was, to say the least, not a good look.
In 2015, a few years later, his wife Gladys Portugues filed for divorce. Van Damme’s relationship with her had always been complicated: she’s both his third and his fifth wife. How did this happen? Well, Van Damme wed her in 1987, and the couple had two kids together before divorcing in 1992 – after the star cheated with LaPier. Then, in 1999, Van Damme and Portugues married again.
According to Hello magazine, the reason for the second divorce given in the paperwork was “irreconcilable differences.” Yet the divorce didn’t go through, and the couple called the separation off in May 2015. “The kids are strong, the wife is strong,” Van Damme told TMZ at the time. “There’s so much divorce around the world, and it’s very bad for the children.”
Divorces aside, though, controversy and difficulty seems to follow Van Damme wherever he goes. In September 2017, for instance, his son Nicholas was apprehended for allegedly threatening a man with a knife in Arizona. There was reportedly a lengthy standoff before Nicholas was taken in by the police. And in the end, Nicholas received 18 months’ probation.
In fact, 2017 wasn’t a good year for Van Damme. That same year, you see, he did a commercial for an Australian company named Ultra Tune. In the ad, a couple of women stop to change a tire but are then menaced by a group of armed men. Things look bad – until Van Damme suddenly arrives, and the would-be assailants greet him warmly.
This Van Damme advert subsequently became one of the most objected-to in Australia that year. The website 9News reported that one complainant said, “The ad is promoting the sexualization of women but also the predatory behaviour of men.” Nonetheless, Australia’s Ad Standards Bureau dismissed the complaints.
In December 2017, though, Van Damme attempted a comeback with a TV show for Amazon called Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The program was a tongue-in-cheek comedy starring Van Damme as a fictional take on his real-life persona. So the title character, Van Johnson, was a failed actor turned assassin.
To promote the show, Van Damme spoke to Rolling Stone about how his life was going. The subject of his bipolar disorder came up in the resulting conversation. “I train differently, I eat differently, I’m trying to talk less fast because I have lots of passion for the project,” he told the magazine. “I’m better than yesterday.”
In the same interview, Van Damme talked about his career and his favorite films. “I like Bloodsport, Timecop and Lionheart,” he said. “I’ve done some good classic films with lots of heart and sincerity. I like to mention that, because in the VHS era – with Stallone and Arnold – and in some countries you had to go by bicycle or bus through the snow to return tapes. It was almost like an event.”
Van Damme also spoke to Sharp magazine that same month about his hopes for the future. He said, “It comes to a point where, look, I’m 55-plus and there’s no time to waste. And also, I think I’ve had a muzzle on me. What’s that thing they put on dogs? Muzzle. Yeah, I think I’ve been muzzled in my career, in terms of not being able to go all [the] way.”
During the Sharp interview, Van Damme also displayed a healthy perspective about his career so far. “One day you hit it big and you score, one day you don’t,” he said. “The actors of Hollywood, including me, they should not take themselves too seriously. You have some very smart actors, and you have some very dumb actors… Maybe I’m one of the dumb ones, but we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously!”
And of the comeback show, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, the actor said, “Hopefully we will have a second season, but you never know in life. If we don’t, believe me, I will not be sleeping because I will be sad for a while, but it’s only a show, okay? We have to think about other things in life also.”
Alas, Van Damme was right to take that attitude. Jean-Claude Van Johnson was canceled by Amazon in January 2018, despite receiving a few more good reviews from critics than bad ones. And since then, Van Damme has starred in three mostly unheard-of limited release films and another Kickboxer sequel.
Thankfully, though, Van Damme seems to take a philosophical view of his career and appears grateful for all he’s achieved. He told Sharp, “To go from nothing, from being a kid from Belgium who has to fight… to go up against all these expectations and fly around the world and try to become something. It’s a long story, but basically it was great all the way up.”