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A star cools down

Action. Drama. Comedy. Wesley Snipes sizzled. And then ... he didn't.

August 01, 2004|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

In his "Blade" movies, Wesley Snipes saves the world by fighting off legions of vampires, repelling the bloodsuckers with martial-arts kicks and flying knives. These days, Snipes could use some of those superhero moves in his real life.

The 42-year-old actor, who once seemed to be on the same trajectory as his friend, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, saw his last film draw mixed reviews and only $12 million at the box office. His latest project, an action film called "7 Seconds" now filming in Romania, has no studio affiliation. And even if his third "Blade" movie, "Blade: Trinity," is a hit when it comes out in December, Snipes faces the prospect of losing the lead the next time around to a pair of younger actors.

More than a dozen years after he dazzled with breakthrough performances in films such as Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," Snipes has been beset by an array of off-screen personal and financial difficulties as well. His Florida mansion is in foreclosure, his former agency had to file a claim against him to collect an overdue debt and an admitted former crack addict has taken him to court in a paternity case. While Snipes' representatives describe her claims as the fantasy of a disturbed woman, a court commissioner in New York has issued a bench warrant for the actor, who could be arrested and forced to submit to a DNA test.

Not so long ago, Snipes was known as a "triple threat" -- good in comedy, action and drama. His roles were diverse: a dangerously charismatic drug lord in "New Jack City," the endearing bigmouth in "White Men Can't Jump," the forbidden lover of Annabella Sciorra in "Jungle Fever," the bleached-blond, blue-eyed villain in "Demolition Man."

But aside from the "Blade" movies, Snipes has not had a resounding critical or box office hit since "White Men Can't Jump" in 1992 -- the year perhaps marking the climax of a career that broke through barriers and seemed poised for greatness.

"It looked like a star was born," said Todd Boyd, a producer ("The Wood") and professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinema-Television. "He certainly had opportunities. I don't know if it was bad choices or what, but Wesley doesn't really fit in anywhere now.... Today he is sort of a man without a country."

Snipes, who is on location shooting "7 Seconds," declined to be interviewed, citing the demands of his schedule. His representatives at United Talent Agency also declined comment.

Some who have worked with him say his story is a classic Hollywood cautionary tale -- one in which temptations abound and making choices becomes increasingly complicated as fame and fortune beckon.

"Actors get to the point where somebody is saying no, no, no, but that is a little squeaky voice in the wilderness," said his former manager, Dolores Robinson, who sued Snipes for back wages and was later countersued by the star. "Everyone else around them, people who are really taking from them, are saying yes, yes, yes. The person telling you no, no, no is suddenly the enemy."

Others see a tinge of racial politics amid the bad breaks and bad choices. Snipes, after all, broke through casting barriers as a dark-skinned black man starring in mainstream Hollywood pictures. But as he became more successful, he stumbled, offending some in his African American female fan base. Not only did he publicly profess his love for Asian women, he is rarely seen at prominent black events or award ceremonies.

"Wesley is a treasure, and it would be nice if he were connected to the black community in a more public way," said Marvet Britto, a publicist who has known Snipes for years. "No matter how famous or infamous you are, we will support you -- if you are someone who is a part of the fabric of the community.... With the right project and focus, people will quickly fall back in love with him as he is the original chocolate heartthrob."

As New Line Cinema prepares for the December release of "Blade: Trinity," friends such as movie producer Reuben Cannon are hoping Snipes can outrun more than the on-screen vampires.

"I think Wesley could still come back in the game. He is just one hit movie away from being an American box office star," said Cannon, whose production credits include "Down in the Delta," with Snipes. "That undefinable screen presence? He has it.... You can't be a choirboy and also expect to be that good. I mean, look at Marlon Brando."

Signed by CAA

Success came relatively quickly for the Bronx-born Snipes. He drew early notice for appearing as a street thug in Michael Jackson's 1987 "Bad" video and within two years distinguished himself as Willie Mays Hayes in the film "Major League."

He quickly was signed by one of the town's top firms, Creative Artists Agency, then run by Michael Ovitz.

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