Monday, January 19, 2009

Profiles of America's Beloved TV Celebrities (31) - Steven Seagal & The Mob, by Anthony Bruno

"Look at me when I talk to you."

Steven Seagal

It could have been a scene from The Sopranos except that it was for real. It took place on February 2, 2001, and the feds caught it all on audio tape. Two made members of the Mafia and an associate had met to discuss the shakedown of a Hollywood movie star. The actor was a martial artist who specialized in playing tough-guy heroes on the big screen. Throughout his career, the star had made several claims of real-life heroics, including black-ops jobs for the CIA and encounters with organized crime figures around the world. The actor also apparently had a fixation with urban Italian-Americans, claiming at one time to be half-Italian when in reality his mother was Irish and his father Jewish. In one of his films, he played an Italian-American detective with close ties to the old neighborhood and the hoods who infested it. In one scene, the hero sits down for espresso with the local boss, showing him the same respect that any of his soldiers would.

Perhaps this is why the real mobsters at the wiretapped meeting were having a good chuckle as they recounted a visit that a couple of them had paid on action-star Steven Seagal. On the FBI tape, they say that the tough-guy actor was "petrified." At this meeting Anthony "Sonny" Ciccone, an alleged capo in New York's Gambino organized-crime family, and his "right-hand man," Primo Cassarino, joked with Vincent Nasso about Seagal's less than heroic reactions to their shakedown attempts. The whole situation brought out the "Paulie Walnuts" in Cassarino. "I wish we had a gun on us," he says on the tape, "that would have been funny."

He was referring to a January 2001 meeting between Seagal and the mobsters. Vincent Nasso and his brother Jules, a film producer who had been Seagal's partner for ten years, met Seagal at a restaurant in Brooklyn. They left that restaurant and reconvened at the landmark steakhouse Gage and Tollner's, where they were joined by Ciccone and Cassarino.

It wasn't Seagal's first meeting with these men. In December 2000, the same group had showed up in Toronto on the set of Seagal's film, Exit Wounds. This time they brought along 350-pound Richard "the Lump" Bondi, an enforcer for the family, hoping to get their point across to the actor. Seagal had severed his relationship with Jules Nasso, having decided to stop making violent action films on the advice of his spiritual guru. But Ciccone and company weren't interested in Seagal's spiritual awakening. Nasso had already lined up four action-adventure projects for him—Genghis Khan, Blood on the Moon, Smash and Grab, and Prince of Central Park—all of them in the slam-bang style that had made Seagal famous. The Gambino family wanted him to keep making action films, and they also wanted him to pay them $150,000 for each of his futures projects.

But Jules Nasso on a previous occasion had warned Ciccone that Seagal wouldn't scare easily. As quoted by Jerry Capici on his Gangland website, FBI wiretaps overheard Nasso saying, "You really gotta get down on him. 'Cause I know this animal, I know this beast. You know, unless there's a fire under his ass."

But Ciccone and his crew were prepared to set that fire under Seagal. At the Gage and Tollner's meeting, Ciccone said to Seagal, "Look at me when I talk to you. We're proud people ... Work with Jules and we'll split the pie." Primo Cassarino later took Seagal aside and told him, "If you would have said the wrong thing, they would have killed you."

When the feds eavesdropped on the mobsters' conversations about Seagal, the wiseguys and their associates seemed pretty confident that they had the tough-guy actor running scared, and they thought it was absolutely hilarious. Vincent Nasso was caught on tape saying, "It was like right out of the movies."

But what none of them realized was how Holly-weird it was going to get.

Rising Star

Steven Seagal is a 7th degree black belt in the martial art aikido, which loosely translates from the Japanese, "the art of divine harmony." Seagal's aikido talents are well displayed in his movies, particularly the early ones such as Above the Law and Marked for Death. Aikido is an art of self-defense; there are no offensive moves. Aikidoka (practitioners of the art) react to aggressive acts against them. The art is characterized by blending with an attack rather than meeting it head on. Ironically, Seagal's personal life has been characterized by anything but harmony and blending, mainly due to the outsized claims he's made about himself.

He claims to have been a student of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, who is also known as O'Sensei. Ueshiba died in 1968, which means that Seagal had to have been a teenager, living alone in Japan, to have studied with the master. At least one of Ueshiba's students remembers Seagal being around at the time but doesn't recall Seagal being on the mat very much. He remembers Seagal as the kid who was always playing guitar.

Sometime in the early 1970s when Seagal was in his twenties, he married Miyako Fujitani whose father owned an aikido dojo in Osaka. Seagal eventually ran the dojo for his father-in-law, which substantiates Seagal's claim that he was the first Westerner to operate an aikido dojo in Japan. He also claims to have earned black belts in other martial arts during this period and "fought off" members of the Yakuza, Japan's version of the Mafia. According to Ned Zeman in Vanity Fair, Fujitani, whom Seagal left in 1980, doubts the veracity of this part of his bio.

Seagal returned to the United States and married Adrienne La Russa while he was still married to Fujitani. When Fujitani learned of her husband's new marriage, she filed for an annulment. In 1986 Seagal met his "destiny," as he put it, when he was introduced to actress and model Kelly LeBrock, who is best known for her performance in the film The Woman in Red with Gene Wilder and as the shampoo pitchwoman who uttered the often-parodied line, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Seagal was so smitten with LeBrock, he followed her all the way to Hong Kong to woo her. At the time Seagal was living in Los Angeles and teaching aikido. Among his aikido students were actor James Coburn and super-agent Mike Ovitz who was often referred to as "the most powerful man in Hollywood." Ovitz arranged for Seagal to give a martial arts demonstration on the lot at Warner Brothers. Tough-guy action heroes were racking up big numbers at the box office, and studio execs at Warner Bros. wanted a tough guy they could call their own. In 1988 Warner Bros. gave Seagal a shot and cast him in Above the Law, a low-budget cop flick that grossed nearly $19 million.

While promoting that film, Seagal gave an interview for the Los Angeles Times in which he obliquely referred to work he'd done for the CIA in Japan. "They saw my abilities, both with martial arts and with the language," he said. "You could 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."

According to Vanity Fair, his first wife stated flatly, "He was never in the CIA."


Undaunted by public skepticism, Seagal made further claims, saying at various times that he was a superb rider, a deadly marksmen, an authority on antique samurai swords, and fluent in four languages. His third film, which co-starred LeBrock, was called Hard to Kill, but to many in the Hollywood community, the newly minted star was becoming hard to believe.

Seagal apparently began to believe his own press. On the set of one movie, he challenged a stuntman, who was a black belt in judo, to try to choke him out, a judo technique in which pressure is applied to the carotid artery in the neck until the victim is rendered temporarily unconscious. According to one source, Seagal claimed to be impervious to the technique. He was wrong. The producers of the film became frantic when they saw their NBA-sized star lying unconscious on the ground.

While Seagal professed to be a man of eastern spirituality, he was starting to behave like the tough guys he played. He applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon and even had a tuxedo tailored to accommodate two handguns.

As his popularity grew, so did his paranoia. He spoke of people who were out to get him, and according to Vanity Fair, on one occasion he offered an ex-CIA operative named Robert Strickland $50,000 in cash to eliminate a former colleague. Strickland had been working with Seagal on an original film project, which never got off the ground. Strickland later sued Seagal for co-opting aspects of his life story and passing them off as his own.

Throughout the nineties, Seagal was accused of sexual harassment by employees and prospective actresses. Ned Zeman in Vanity Fair quotes an actress who described Seagal's new spin on the casting-couch lure. According to the woman, Seagal had asked her to take off her top and groped her breasts in order to show her where her spiritual "meridian points" were located.

As his popularity with action-film fans grew, his behavior off the screen became increasingly bizarre. At his height, he was commanding $16 million per picture and owned a mansion in LA's Mandeville Canyon and a ranch with a winery in Santa Inez, California. His box-office grosses made studio execs happy enough to overlook his eccentricities, but Kelly LeBrock had apparently had enough of Steven Seagal the man and the myth. On Halloween 1995 he was served with divorce papers. LeBrock wanted out.

Warner Bros. was growing tired of him as well. By the mid-nineties, his popularity had "plateaued." According to Zeman, "his waistline [was] increasing" and "his hairline retreating." His lean, mean man of action demeanor was succumbing to middle age and the ravages of the good life. By 2000, his per-picture fee had dropped to $2.5 million, and Warner Bros. was no longer interested in working with him.

Precious Jewel"

By this time Seagal had already veered off onto another freeway on his spiritual journey. Through the late nineties, he sought out healers and holy men, often donating large sums to their causes. He settled on Buddhism and followed the teachings of Penor Rinpoche. In 1997 Seagal's teacher declared him a tulku, the embodiment of lama Chungdrag Dorje, the founder of a 17th century Tibetan monastery. In a sacred ceremony in Tibet, he was given the title Terton Rinpoche, "precious jewel." He took to wearing brightly colored silk robes, and visitors to his California homes reported that his staff waited on him hand and foot and always respectfully referred to him as "Rinpoche."

But to his fans around the world, Seagal was a brand-name commodity, and his partner Jules Nasso understood this. Moviegoers were still willing to pay to see Seagal on screen as long as he played the tough-guy hero they had come to love. That's how Nasso was able to put together deals for four new pictures by pre-selling the foreign distribution rights. He just had to convince Seagal not to let his new-found religious beliefs interfere with the tried-and-true Seagal formula.

But Seagal wasn't interested in the old formula. He wanted to stretch as an actor and do different kinds of films.

His desire to stop making violent films did not alter his pattern of telling unbelievable stories, however. In late 2001, Edeltrud Vorderwuhlbecke, the owner of a luxurious Berlin villa, sought damages from Seagal for wrecking his property, which Seagal had rented during the filming of Half Past Dead. Seagal responded by suing Vorderwuhlbecke and John "Does 1 through 100," claiming that they were members of the "German Mafia" seeking to extort money from him by way of threats of "severe bodily injury." The lawsuit stated that Seagal had suffered "severe anxiety, emotional distress, humiliation, and mortification" as a result of these threats.

Seagal adopted a similar legal strategy when he was sued by his former partner Jules Nasso in 2002. Nasso, who was left holding the bag with a four-picture deal that Seagal would not honor, sued the star for breach of contract. The price tag: $60 million. Nasso was allegedly connected, not to the "German Mafia," but to the home-grown Italian-American mob, so the born-again Buddhist decided to use the courts to thwart Nasso's suit. Like the one-man armies he'd played in the movies, Seagal was going to take on Nasso and his alleged "nefarious underworld" associates, New York's Gambino family.

The Pharmacist

Jules Nasso was already a very successful businessman before he got into the entertainment business. A trained pharmacist with a doctorate from the University of Connecticut, Nasso founded Universal Marine Medical Supply, a company that provides medical supplies to ships in dock. The company started small in Queens, serving New York harbor, then expanded and eventually became a nationwide chain. The company proved to be lucrative, but for Brooklyn-born Nasso it wasn't exciting. He wanted to get involved with something more creative, something that had more cache and pizzazz than Band-aids and antacids. He wanted to make movies.

In 1983, at the age of 29, Nasso managed to land a job as a gofer on the Brooklyn set of Once Upon a Time in America, which starred James Woods and Robert DeNiro. Nasso had pitched himself as a neighborhood guy who knew the territory and was willing to do anything to break into the biz. The film's Italian director, Sergio Leone, who was famous for his "spaghetti Westerns," including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, couldn't understand why a pharmacist with a growing business would want to work for $35 a day, running errands on a movie set. But the director didn't understand. Nasso had stars in his eyes and the dogged determination to follow his dream. He was there to learn.

Super agent Michael Ovitz

When Jules first met Steven Seagal in 1986 at an Italian deli in Beverly Hills, Seagal was attracted to Nasso's goombah style and the intimation that he was "connected." Seagal, a self-professed man of danger, was so taken with Nasso's man-of-honor panache, he started telling people that he and Nasso were related and that they'd grown up together on the mean streets of Brooklyn. (Seagal's mother set the world straight on that point, insisting that her son was brought up in Michigan and California.) Nasso saw in Seagal a potential star he could ride into the Hollywood firmament, especially given Seagal's access to super-agent Mike Ovitz. Seagal and Nasso became partners, forming Seagal/Nasso Productions, which later became Steamroller Entertainment. But when Seagal's career skyrocketed, the New York mobsters who had allegedly helped Nasso in the past came knocking. They wanted a piece of the movie action.

It remains unclear when and if the wiseguys were able to "wet their beaks" in Seagal's birdbath, but Seagal had already reached his peak as a box-office winner when the feds caught Sonny Ciccone and Jules Nasso on tape discussing the erratic star. Ciccone is heard dressing down the pharmacist, demanding that he get Seagal to fork over $150,000 per movie to the Gambino family. The extortion plan could have earned the mobsters over $3 million. On the tape Nasso balks, explaining that Seagal might be a hard nut to crack.

Legal Unpleasantness

Of course, Seagal's greatest successes, such as Under Siege and Under Siege II, were long behind him at this point. He had found religion and was refusing to commit to any more films that highlighted violence. The mob, of course, didn't want to hear anything about his new-found morality. They wanted the money. Nasso was now in a bind. The goons were demanding their skim off the top, but the cash cow was refusing to produce. Nasso did everything he could to change Seagal's mind, even putting together the four-picture deal for him, but Seagal wouldn't budge. Their relationship became increasingly acrimonious, and by early 2001 the partnership was all but formally dissolved.

Nasso then filed a $60 million civil suit against Seagal for breach of contract. He claimed that for the millions of dollars Seagal had earned during their partnership, Nasso himself had earned a mere $850,000. He also claimed that Seagal had borrowed $500,000 from him to pay taxes and had never repaid the loan. Was Nasso hoping to get the cash that Ciccone was demanding through the lawsuit?

Not surprisingly, according to Vanity Fair, the last words Nasso said to Seagal were, "Go f**k yourself."

But on June 4, 2001—three months after Nasso had filed his suit against Seagal—police and federal agents pounded on the door of Nasso's Staten Island home, Villa Terranova, before dawn and arrested him. He was charged with "conspiracy to commit extortion" and "extortion of an individual in the film industry." Simultaneously, 16 other men were arrested, all of them part of a wide-ranging 68-count indictment. The two counts against Nasso were a small part of it, but it would prove to give an otherwise routine Mafia sweep some Hollywood flare.

Nasso didn't need to be told the identity of the "individual in the film industry" he was allegedly extorting. It wasn't long before he learned that Seagal had testified before a federal grand jury, and the picture the actor painted of his ex-partner wasn't a pretty one. Nasso's bail was set at $1.5 million.

This is crazy!"

On February 11, 2003, Steven Seagal arrived at the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, wearing, as Anthony DeStefano reported in Newsday, "a chocolate-colored silk Mandarin jacket and blue jeans." He had a "deep tan," having just flown in from Thailand where he was shooting his latest film, Belly of the Beast. But despite his Eastern garb, Seagal was not at peace with the world that day. He clearly did not want to be there, but he'd been subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution in the government's attempt to put away 17 alleged members and associates of the Gambino crime family. The various defense attorneys made it plain that they had their legal knives sharpened for the movie star.

As George Santangelo, Sonny Ciccone's attorney, put it, Seagal was a "pathological liar," and the attorneys for the defense aimed to prove it for the jury. The attorneys were going to ask Seagal about several things, including an alleged incident in Japan where he angered a member of the Yakuza by getting involved with the man's girlfriend. Allegedly Seagal sought help from the American Mafia to handle the situation.

The attorneys also wanted to know more about an ex-con's charge that a private eye commissioned by Seagal had hired him to harass a Los Angeles Times reporter who'd been covering the actor's alleged mob ties. The reporter, Anita Busch, had found a dead fish with a rose in its mouth on her punctured windshield. A note found under the fish said, "STOP!" Alexander Proctor, the ex-con, had told an informant that he'd been hired by P.I. to the stars, Anthony Pelicano, on behalf of Seagal. "[Pelicano] wanted to make it look like the Italians were putting the hit on her so it wouldn't reflect on Seagal," Proctor said.

Although Seagal was granted limited immunity, which prevented him from being prosecuted for anything incriminating he might say on the stand, Seagal did not relish having his elaborately constructed mystique picked apart by lawyers. For four hours, the defense circled and jabbed at Seagal. Many of Seagal's claims from the past came back to haunt him. He was asked at one point if he had once hired "someone to set up a man in a compromising homosexual situation."

Seagal exploded. "I'm not on trial here! ... This is crazy."

"Benign Buddha"

But Seagal was stuck on the hot seat. He was questioned about the visits Sonny Ciccone and Primo Cassarino had paid him on various occasions and the threats they had delivered. He was asked about the meeting at Gage and Tollner's restaurant and how he had felt sitting at a table with made members of the Mafia.

"I felt uncomfortable," he admitted, even though he said he had been carrying a concealed weapon.

He was asked if he was he worried about his safety.

"Yes," he said through gritted teeth.

Later, when George Santangelo got his crack at Seagal, the lawyer inquired if the actor had ever asked a man named Herb Saunders to kill someone.

Seagal lost it. "This is insane," he blurted angrily. "Insane!"

But later Seagal regained his composure and actually seemed to enjoy sparring with Santangelo. And for the jury, the actor always had a smile and a wave, "like a benign Buddha."

Seagal's testimony was the highlight of an otherwise standard organized-crime trial. Lawyers for Jules and Vincent Nasso succeeded in severing their clients from the case, reasoning that the charges against the Nasso brothers were minor compared to those levied against the other defendants whose criminal reputations would unfairly influence the jury's opinion of the Nassos. A separate trial for the brothers was put off to a later date.

On St. Patrick's Day, 2003, Sonny Ciccone was found guilty of various charges associated with his 20-year stranglehold on the New York waterfront. Peter Gotti, the acting head of the Gambino family, was convicted of money laundering, racketeering, and conspiracy. His brother, alleged capo Richard V. Gotti, and Richard's son, Richard G. Gotti, were also found guilty. (In August Jules Nasso agreed to a plea deal wherein he admitted to one count of extortion conspiracy for which he would serve one year in prison and pay a $75,000 fine.) In declaring victory, prosecutors said these convictions dealt the Gambino family yet another damaging blow that would put the family in "disarray."

But according to mob experts, the Gambinos were down but not out, and as they'd seen many times before, the Mafia hydra has the ability to sprout new heads when the old ones are lopped off. The convicted defendants were going to serve time, but criminal business would continue as usual. Old debts and long-established tribute would still have to be paid. And if Jules Nasso was as mobbed up as prosecutors contended, he still would be indebted and the money Seagal owed Nasso would be earmarked by the Gambino family to satisfy Nasso's obligation. Perhaps Seagal realized this and that's why he visited an incarcerated mobster from a rival crime family in the spring of 2001 to see if another made man could intervene for him with the Gambinos.

As reported by Paul Lieberman in the Los Angeles Times, Seagal met with Angelo Prisco, a capo in the Genovese crime family, who is serving a 12-year sentence for arson and conspiracy at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. According to FBI documents, Seagal admitted to giving Prisco's lawyer $10,000 after the visit. But even assuming that Prisco did put in a good word for the actor, would the Gambinos be willing to forgive and forget when millions of dollars were at stake?

Not likely.

The Pitch

If the tale of Steven Seagal's entanglement with the Italian-American Mafia were presented as a pitch for a movie, it would go something like this: Smart, good-looking, tall and trim HERO. A trained killer and former soldier of fortune, black belt in several deadly martial arts. Can kill with his eyelashes if necessary. Hero is targeted by MOBSTERS who try to shake him down for large sum of money. The mob's point man is a short, weasely JOE PESCI TYPE. But our hero is as righteous as he is taciturn. He tries to solve things peacefully by going to an HONORABLE OLD MOBSTER, but this man is an old-style "man of honor" and he can't talk reason with the gang of bad mobsters. After trashing and smashing a passel of mob underlings, the clever hero manages to outmaneuver the bad mobsters in court, using his quick wits and ingenious verbal combat techniques. The bad mobsters are found guilty and sent to jail for a very long time. Hero walks out of courtroom head held high, free from mob extortion and death threats. At the bottom of the courthouse steps, he links arms with the SHAPELY MOB PRINCESS who sees the shallow worthlessness of her former life and salivates to live in the Hero's righteous glow.

That's the movie version, and perhaps this is emblematic of the heightened reality that Steven Seagal lived during his Hollywood career. Yakuza, drug lords, CIA assassins, black ops, rogue cops—the screen versions blended and blurred with the "facts" that Seagal presented to the public. Then he got involved with the real deal and found that made members of La Cosa Nostra are not as romantic or honorable as their celluloid counterparts, and they don't take direction.

What Seagal failed to realize is that the Mafia is concerned with only one thing: money. They are not "men of honor," and they only do the right thing when it does right by them. As the FBI undercover tapes have shown, the mobsters were significantly less impressed with Seagal than he apparently was with them. Celebrities who pal around with mobsters for the bad-guy cache soon learn that this kind of friendship has a price tag, and often it's a running tab that's never satisfied. Fame means nothing to the mob, only fortune. Or as the fictional Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, says in the Godfather, "It's not personal ... It's strictly business."

Jules Nasso is pressing ahead with his $60 million civil suit against Seagal.


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