Steven Frederic Seagal was born in Lansing, Michigan, to Patricia Anne (Fisher), a medical technician, and Samuel Seagal, a high school math teacher. His paternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and his mother had English, German, and distant Irish and Dutch, ancestry. The enigmatic Seagal commenced his martial arts training at the age of seven under the tutelage of well-known karate instructor and author Fumio Demura, and in the 1960s commenced his aikido training in Orange County, CA, under the instruction of Harry Ishisaka. Seagal received his first dan accreditation in 1974, after he had moved to Japan to further his martial arts training. After spending many years there honing his skills, he achieved the ranking of a 7th dan in the Japanese martial art “aikido” and was instructing wealthy clients in Los Angeles when he came to the attention of Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz.
Ovitz saw star value in the imposing-looking Seagal. The high-octane action movie genre was in full swing in the late 1980s, and Seagal’s debut movie, “Above the Law”, was wildly received by action fans and actually received some complimentary critical reviews. He followed up “Above the Law” with another slam-bang thriller, Hard to Kill (1990), as a cop shot in an ambush by the mob who revives from a coma to take his revenge. The movie also starred Seagal’s wife at the time, leggy Kelly LeBrock, who was married to him from 1987 to 1996 and is the mother of three of his children. His next outing was battling voodoo-using Jamaican drug “posses” in the hyper-violent Marked for Death (1990), before returning to fight psychotic mob gangster William Forsythe in the even more punishing Out for Justice (1991). Seagal was by now enormously popular, and his next movie, the big-budgeted Under Siege (1992), set aboard the battleship USS Missouri and also starring Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey, was arguably his best film to date, impressing both fans and critics alike.
Seagal’s fighting style was rather different from that of other on-screen martial arts dynamos such as Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who were predominantly fighters from striking arts background such as karate or tang soo do. However, aikido is built around using an opponent’s inertia and body weight to employ various locks, chokes and holds that incapacitate him. Seagal carries himself differently, too, and often appears wearing Italian designer clothes and usually favors an all-black outfit, generally with a three-quarter-length coat with an elaborate trim. Additionally, Seagal’s on-screen characters were often seemingly benign or timid individuals; however, when the going gets rough they reveal themselves to be deadly ex-CIA operatives, or retired Special Forces soldiers capable of enormous destruction!
As his box-office drawing power grew, Seagal began to infuse his film projects with his personal and spiritual beliefs, especially concerning the abuse of the environment. He appeared as an oil fire expert who turns against his corrupt CEO (played by Michael Caine) in On Deadly Ground (1994) to save the Eskimo population from an oil disaster; in Fire Down Below (1997) he plays an environmental agency troubleshooter investigating the dumping of toxic waste in Kentucky coal mines, and in the slow-moving The Patriot (1998) he plays a medical specialist trying to stop a lethal virus unleashed by an extremist group.
Action fans struggled to come to terms with social messaging being built into bone-crunching fight films; however, Seagal’s box-office clout remained fairly strong, and more traditional chopsocky projects followed with the “buddy cop” film The Glimmer Man (1996), then almost a cameo role as a Navy SEAL alongside CIA analyst Kurt Russell before Seagal is sucked out of a jet at 35,000 feet in Executive Decision (1996).
In 1999 Seagal took a different turn in his film projects with the surprising genteel Prince of Central Park (2000), about a child living inside NYC’s most famous park. He returned to more familiar territory with further high-voltage, guns-blazing action in Exit Wounds (2001), Half Past Dead (2002), Out for a Kill (2003) and Belly of the Beast (2003).
Unbeknownst to many, in 1997 Seagal publicly announced that one of his Buddhist teachers, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, had accorded Seagal as a tulku, the reincarnation of a Buddhist Lama. This initial announcement was met with some disbelief until Penor Rinpoche himself gave a confirmation statement on Seagal’s new title. Seagal has repeatedly discussed his involvement in Buddhism and how he devotes many hours studying and meditating this ancient Eastern religion.
While his box-office appeal has somewhat declined from his halcyon blockbusters of the mid-’90s, Seagal still has a very loyal fan base in the action movie genre and continues to remain a highly bankable star.
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