Semel searched for the right words.
"Steven seems to exude this enormous sense of focus and intensity. He has this serious look that--well, when you look at him, you see danger."
The Cover Story
Danger is something that Seagal says he has seen plenty of. Born in Detroit and reared in California, he left home at 16, eventually moving to Japan in 1968, where he devoted himself full-time to the study of martial arts.
By the end of his 15-year stint there, he had become a respected figure in the field. His accomplishments have been widely chronicled in martial arts magazines, which note that he became the only Westerner to operate his own dojo in Japan.
While teaching there, Seagal discovered that his classes were populated with an unusual assortment of students. Students who, as he put it, worked for a "particular agency."
The Central Intelligence Agency.
"In Asia, you'd be amazed how many people are connected with the agency," Seagal explained one night on the film set in Chicago, where he was fighting off a migraine headache. "A lot of the American military has been over there since the occupation and they've become very connected to the intelligence community.
"These guys were my students. They saw my abilities, both with martial arts and with the language. My CIA godfather told me he'd never heard any American speak Japanese so well. I would say I was a prime candidate to be recruited."
Did Seagal actually work for the CIA? He offered a qualified admission--or perhaps a qualified denial.
"You can say that I lived in Asia for a long time and in Japan I became close to several CIA agents," he said, choosing his words carefully. "And you could say that I became an adviser 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."
Seagal declined to offer many details, refusing to cite specific missions or locales. However, when asked about the authenticity of a scene in "Above the Law" that shows an intelligence operative injecting a rival with a deadly chemical truth serum, Seagal said: "That's not made up. That's something that really happened."
However, Seagal spoke freely about his involvement in security operations for the Shah of Iran when he was deposed in 1979: "We helped set up safe houses in London and Paris so the Shah and his family could flee the country. We also were aiding members of the Shah's family, who were under the threat of death from Kakahili, Ayatollah Khomeini's killing judge.
"It was incredibly barbaric--they were randomly executing people. It was like something out of the Hitler era. One of the Shah's nephews wouldn't leave, so we had to hit him over the head and try to take him out unconscious. But he insisted on going free, so we finally had to let him go. We warned him what would happen. But he left. Later the same day, he got shot in the back of the head."
Seagal said he has done more recent security work, including work for South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but only jobs for people who are "special" to him. "My wife and I just had a baby girl, so I'm trying to stay semi-retired and away from a lot of these things."
Only when you get some distance from these stories do you begin to wonder just what kind of act this would-be actor has. Is he on the level? Or is he just blowing smoke--playing the part of a scruffy character lifted from a Ross Thomas thriller?
"I'd be very happy if nobody believes me," Seagal said without a trace of irritation. "I don't think you can find anyone in the agency who can prove they work for the agency. That's the whole point.
"I did some work for the White House recently, for a committee where everybody had top-security clearance. And when they checked up on me, they couldn't find any data on me. They asked the agency, who refused to confirm or deny who works for them.
"That's why I see no reason to go public with any details I might or might not know. But I could tell you stories. . . ."
Seagal's voice trailed off for a moment as he squeezed his temples, trying to soothe his headache. "You know, it's not like a movie. If they wanted to, they could get people to come over and get me tonight."
The Back Story
Seagal was right about checking his story. If you call the CIA, a public information officer dutifully explains, as if asked the question every day: "We don't discuss employee records. . . . No, we can't confirm or deny anyone's involvement with the agency."
Asked about Seagal, a Washington insider with ties to the intelligence community said that it would be unlikely that someone who worked for or with the CIA would publicly acknowledge such activity.