But how does a virtual unknown suddenly emerge with a starring role (and a story credit) in a studio film?
How's this for an answer: Make sure your agent is Mike Ovitz.
According to many accounts, the chief of CAA, Hollywood's leading talent agency, is not only a longtime martial-arts enthusiast but actually studied with Seagal. As they became friendly, the idea of Seagal as an action hero began to take shape.
At least that was the word around town on Seagal, and it was widely repeated on the set of "Above the Law" in Chicago. Virtually everyone--from the grips to production staffers to director Andy Davis--seemed aware of the Seagal-Ovitz connection. In fact, many crew members saw Ovitz's involvement as an omen.
One night last summer, a local attorney was drinking with several crew members at a Rush Street bar. "Are you sure this movie will ever be released?" the lawyer scoffed. "Who's ever heard of this Seagal guy?"
The crew members were indignant. "Hey, just wait and see," one said. "Seagal is no lightweight. One of his star students is the most powerful agent in Hollywood. No one's gonna mess with this film."
Ovitz declined to be interviewed for this article. (He rarely speaks to the press--CAA has a company-wide gag rule about giving interviews.)
However, Seagal denied having instructed Ovitz in aikido:
"Coming from my lips, I don't teach him the martial arts on a formal basis," he said. "Michael does love the martial arts and we talk about it all the time. But that's the extent of it, despite what you may have heard."
But Warners' Semel confirmed that Ovitz has played a "special" role in Seagal's progress.
"Michael has been one of Steven's major supporters," Semel said. "He went far beyond the role of just being Steven's agent. In fact, with the type of superstar client list Michael has, you wouldn't normally see him work so closely with a first-time actor.
"But he really believes Steven can be a star. Michael knew Steven from the world of martial-arts, where Steven is apparently something of a celebrity. So Michael has really gotten involved. He'd constantly say to me, 'Think of this guy. Think of this guy.' "
Seagal isn't shy about voicing his view of his relationship with Ovitz. Crouched on an exercise mat at his West Hollywood dojo (aikido school), saying good night to his last class of the day, he seemed especially thoughtful as he explained his kinship with the Hollywood deal-maker.
"Michael and I are very close--we love each other," Seagal said. "I'm like a guru to him."
Hollywood loves action heroes. Once they ascend to the heaven of the stars, they're like a successful sports franchise--they just keep spewing money.
But it's hard to find new tough-guy contenders. And it's even more difficult to package and sell them. The Hollywood landscape is littered with the bodies of failures, actors like Jan-Michael Vincent and David Carradine, who never won the public's heart and pocketbooks as action heroes.
Semel has seen how much box-office muscle action stars can provide a studio. Warners has been involved at virtually all ends of the rock 'em-sock 'em spectrum, distributing both a host of modestly priced Eastwood films as well as picking up such low-low-budget hits as Bruce Lee's legendary "Enter the Dragon" and Tom Laughlin's "Billy Jack" movies.
"If you have a hit action movie, you can have a hit everywhere," Semel said. "Action films translate particularly well overseas. 'Cobra,' for example, did twice the business internationally that it did here."
Semel said that he first met Seagal socially. "I knew he was an aspiring actor, that he was physical, very powerful--and that he was a good-looking guy," Semel said. "And as we got interested in him, we went on the theory that his appeal wouldn't necessarily be limited to martial arts--that he had the persona and the physique to be a potential star."
According to Seagal's account, once execs at Warners got interested, they made quite a sales pitch.
"When I met with Terry Semel and (Warners production head) Mark Canton, they told me, 'We'd like to make you part of the family here.' They explained that they'd acquired a ton of material for Clint Eastwood, but that he wasn't getting any younger and he wanted to do a lot more projects on his own. . . .
"That's when they said, 'We'd like to see you take his place. We think you can be the next Eastwood.' Then they gave me a pile of scripts and basically said, 'Pick one and we'll do it with you.' "
Did Warners really give this unknown martial arts pro carte blanche? Semel's description of their encounter was somewhat less vivid.
"I don't think it was a matter of anyone replacing Clint. He's gone far beyond being just an action star," Semel said.
"But when you do look at action stars, it's a very short list: Stallone, Norris, Schwarzenegger, maybe a couple of others. The key question always is: Who's that rare young guy coming up who can handle those physical roles? We think Steven could be it. He . . . ."