Tall and lean, with the rough, good looks of a daredevil jet pilot, Steven Seagal is more than just a 6-foot-4 martial-arts wizard who can flip a man 5 feet in the air with a flick of his wrist.
His fans proclaim that he's a star waiting to be born.
And let's talk fans. Seagal has an enthusiastic film studio booster (Warner Bros. President Terry Semel), a mega-potent Hollywood agent-pal (Michael Ovitz, the fearsome leader of Creative Artists Agency) and a high-profile public relations firm (Rogers & Cowan) to go along with a model-starlet wife, Kelly ("The Woman in Red") Le Brock. (Who can forget her TV commercial lament: "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.")
Seagal (pronounced See-GAL), 37, also has a host of Hollywood power-broker-fans predicting that he'll join the ranks of such action megastars Arnold Schwarzenegger, 40; Sylvester Stallone, 41; Chuck Norris, 47; Clint Eastwood, 57; and Charles Bronson, 65.
"There are some people who carry their own set of lights--and I think Steven may be one of 'em," said veteran producer Freddie Fields, who "goes back a couple of years" with Seagal.
But is Seagal--who had never been in front of a camera before last spring--ready to make the leap to stardom? The box-office receipts will be the final barometer (as in the bottom line), but if you want to see Hollywood's star-making machinery humming in high gear, listen to the story behind Seagal's sudden emergence as a bankable film star.
A decade ago, he was living in Japan, where he taught aikido and--by his account--was recruited by the CIA to help carry out undercover missions.
A year ago, he had returned to the States and was quietly running his West Hollywood-based Aikido Ten Shin Dojo, a martial-arts school, where he still teaches three nights a week.
Today, he is awaiting the April 8 release of "Above the Law," a $7.5-million thriller from Warners in which he plays an embattled Chicago detective whose investigation of political corruption lands him in the midst of a CIA-connected Central American drug connection.
Tomorrow? Watch out, Arnie, Sly, Chuck, Clint and Charles.
"As soon as I saw Steven, I knew that, given the right vehicle, he could become a major star," said Tony Ludwig, president of Imagine Films. "The closest person I've ever seen that carries himself with the same kind of stature is Mikhail Baryshnikov. Steven is smooth, powerful and has this don't-mess-with-me presence. It's almost as if he's a manufactured human being."
Of course, "manufactured" cuts both ways. With all these heavy hitters behind him, we're entitled to wonder: Is Seagal a bona fide discovery or will be come off as just another homogenized Hollywood hunk?
"Steven has the most amazing presence you've ever seen," says Ludwig, who met Seagal when Ludwig was a Creative Artists agent. "When he walks into a room, you can see every head--male and female--turn around as if they're all wondering who this guy is. It's sheer magnetism."
OK, so he's magnetic. But can he act? Or is it enough to project a steely-eyed stare and a rugged set of pecs?
In person, Seagal is shy, self-effacing, eager to make a good impression. Unaccustomed to such scrutiny, he had mixed emotions about spending several days with a reporter, alternating between being curious about the process and wary of the intimacy.
Ludwig wasn't exaggerating. When Seagal sweeps through a restaurant, quickly crossing the room with his long, supple strides, heads do turn. With his huge hands, finely sculpted cheekbones and quick, cat-like movements, Seagal radiates plenty of movie-marquee sex appeal. And his martial-arts expertise seems to offer plenty of action-film credibility.
But what really grabs your attention is his voice.
Whether he is recounting his exploits overseas or wondering about his box-office reception, he speaks with a hushed, conspiratorial purr--as if he were worried that a tiny man hidden under the floorboards might be taping the conversation.
Who knows--maybe he won't be such a bad actor after all.
It's always hard to predict how film critics will respond to a new actor, but judging from an early, rough-cut screening of "Above the Law," Seagal appears to have the makings of a believable action hero. As a Chicago undercover cop at odds with federal authorities, he seems at home in front of the camera, whether he's manhandling drug kingpins during a car chase, cooly interrogating suspects or preaching against the excesses of CIA hit-men.
While Seagal demonstrates plenty of agile macho moves (he often chops his way through a half-dozen thugs at a time), he also projects an air of quiet intelligence--he looks like he could really pursue a complicated investigation (a quality missing with Norris, Schwarzenneger or Bronson). The film makers also balance the action with comedy, allowing Seagal to show a nice light, raffish touch, especially when trading quips with co-star and squad-car partner Pam Greer.