The Very Weird Tales of Steven Seagal

Pretend for a moment that you are a highly visible Republican Congressman needing to get the Russians to come to the table to discuss items of mutual national interest.

Who would you call to set up some overseas meetings?  The State Department?  U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul?  George Shultz, Casper Weinberger, or someone else from the Reagan administration that was on hand during those  heady Glasnost years?

No, apparently you need to go through Steven Seagal.

According to the AP, Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Steven King[1] used the (really, really terrible) action movie actor to set up key meetings with key Russian officials in order to share intelligence regarding Bobston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  Why Steven Seagal, you ask?  It turns out that meeting with Russian bigwigs like Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov is just one of those things Seagal does in his spare time:

Seagal, who attended the news conference in the U.S. Embassy, is well connected in Russia. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, and last week paid a visit to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who rules Chechnya, a province in southern Russia that has seen two brutal wars between federal troops and Chechen separatists since 1994….

The action movie star escorted the congressmen on a trip Saturday to the site of a terrorist attack in the Caucasus town of Beslan, where militants seized a school in 2004 and took more than 1,000 people hostage, most of them children. More than 330 hostages died, most of them when federal troops stormed the school.

How weird is that?  If it weren’t for the fact that these meetings actually seem to have happened and are being reported as having been set up by Seagal, I would have assumed it to be yet another self-created Seagal myth.  And maybe it still is.  Seagal is one of those guys that pops up on my radar screen every so often, and each time he does it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s something of a huckster.

Like most Americans, I first became aware of Seagal when Under Siege became an unexpected box office smash.  (It’s Die Hard on a boat!)  Unlike other action stars of that same era, Seagal never was quite able to muster up a string of hits. Under Siege’s success notwithstanding, he was essentially a direct-to-video star – more in mold of a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lungren than a Stallone, Willis or Schwarzenegger.  At the crest of his brief stardom he became, I believe, the only person ever to be banned from Saturday Night Live for being a terrible actor/performer.  (Which, when you think of all the people who have hosted SNL over the years, is really saying something.)  And yet despite his rapid descent into “Hey, Remember That Guy?” status, he kept resurfacing in really interesting ways every few years.

In 1999 I purchased a GQ at the airport for a little light airline reading, and was introduced to the amazing essayist David Rakoff through his fabulous piece on Seagal, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!  Through Rakoff, I learned that Seagal had parlayed his fame as a martial arts video star into a gig as a New Age guru.  And not just any new age guru, but one who passed himself off as an ex-CIA operative who was now recognized as a tulku (incarnate lama from a past life) by the “head” of Tibetan Buddhism.  That neither Tibet nor the CIA seemed to be aware of this deterred either Seagal or his fans too much:

For his part, Seagal frames his involvement with Tibet in much the same way that he has described his past possible involvements with international intelligence and the CIA—semishrouded, covert and intrinsically unknowable. “I was in a monastery in Kyoto,” he tells us, “and met some monks from Tibet who had been tortured by the Chinese. As I was the only one who had studied herbology, bone manipulation and acupuncture, I treated them, and there was an immediate connection.”

One day you’re a simple bone manipulator, the next you’re teaching torture victims how to get centered. It’s a familiar trajectory: You almost can’t swing a reincarnated cat without hitting someone who’s followed this path. The audience seems unbothered by the unverifiability of Seagal’s explanation. Most nod with appreciative understanding, some closing their eyes and smiling, savoring the moment like a divine chocolate.

As the years went by, other stories about Seagal would occasionally float by my field of vision:

In 2005 he began to market his own line of Steven Seagal homeopathic oils.  [Side Note: Has there ever been a more snake-oily product sold than homeopathic oils?  It might actually be snake-oilier than actual snake oil.]  A year later, he launched Lightning Bolt, an energy drink advertised to be the first ever to be made with Asian cordyceps. Because of this ingredient, claimed Seagalthe soft-drink would not only give you “pure” energy, it would boost your immune system, reduce your blood pressure and improve your liver functions.

Around the same time, Seagal released Songs From the Crystal Cave, a heavily-produced blues-rock album made with a group of session musicians.  Seagal claims to have been taught the blues by a list of personal mentors who took him under their wing, and the bluesmen on the list are nothing to sneeze at: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. But music hasn’t kept him from keeping up his fighting skills: Seagal takes credit for a great deal of UFC’s success, having said that his personal training is behind many of that sport’s champions. (If there are interviews where King, Hooker, Brown, Diddley or these “many UFC champions” acknowledging these symbiotic relationships, they seem to be Google-proof.)

In 2009, Seagal starred in Steven Seagal: Lawman, a reality TV show produced for A&E.  Seagal and the producers of Lawman note that in addition to his CIA, movie and reincarnated monk work, in years past Seagal graduated from the Los Angeles police academy and holds a certificate from POST, the organization that accredits California police officers.  However, there is no record of him having done either.  The series was suspended when Seagal was sued for sexual trafficking and harassment.  (That case appears to have been settled out of court, although neither parties will confirm this.)

More recently, Seagal has managed to parlay his fictional lawman past into high-profile consulting gigs.  In February of this year, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (himself a bit of a self-promoter) hired Seagal to train a posse of volunteers to take out crazed gunmen and terrorists in Phoenix public schools.  Capitalizing on the recent tragedy in Newton, Connecticut school shootings, the training seemed to largely be a publicity stunt.  (Among the posse members was Lou Ferrigno of TV’s The Hulk.)  In addition to training the posse on the proper use of firearms, Seagal was also paid to teach them how to take out the crazed and/or terrorist gunmen with “marital arts.”

Arpaio’s hiring of Seagal may sound a bit out of the blue, but in fact the two have a relationship.  Last fall Seagal endorsed Arpaio’s reelection bid, and in 2011 Arpaio raided a Phoenix illegal cockfight with Seagal as the action star rode atop a tank.  No, you read that correctly – the one-man chicken farm was raided by Steven Seagal on a tank.

And now, on top of everything else, Steven Seagal is a man who opens doors in Russia.

I find myself wondering, however, just how much of what we’re reading in the Associated Press will end up being debunked when all is said and done.  After all, in the past the press has credulously identified Seagal as an ex-CIA operative, an ex-LA policeman, a weapons and tactics expert, and a recognized reincarnation of the lama by the country of Tibet.  Joe Arpaio has shown that a politician that caters to a certain demographic can make use of both Seagal’s cynical opportunism and fan base.  Is it really such a stretch to imagine that Rohrabacher and King – two politicians who cater to a similar crowd as Arpaio and who have a history with fabulous storytelling – would be willing to do the same thing?

And it’s not too hard to theorize why the Russians might go along with the charade.  After all, Seagal, Rohrabacher and King have given good, positive-spin publicity to two of Russia’s biggest PR headaches in the US and Eurpoean press.

Most everyone outside of Russia who wrote about the Pussy Riot jailing were highly critical of Putin. (Including, most notably to my mind, our own Burt Likko.)  Rohrabacher and King were more than happy to exchange political cover in the States for access:

Rohrabacher and King were full of praise for Russian Orthodox Christian traditions after attending a service at Moscow’s main cathedral on Sunday morning. The cathedral became a rallying point for Putin supporters and the opposition alike last year when punk group Pussy Riot staged an impromptu protest against Putin’s merging of church and state, earning them worldwide notoriety and a two-year prison sentence for “hooliganism.”

“It’s hard to find sympathy for people who would do that to people’s faith,” King said.

In fact, you could go so far as to say that uber-conservative hawks Rohrabacher and King have suddenly become pretty pro-Russia, saying that the US and European criticisms of Putin are “sinister.”

Likewise, the congressmen are giving cover to Seagal’s supposed pal and Chechnya boss Kadyrov, who up until now has been portrayed in foreign press as a bit of a monster:

The Kremlin has given Kadyrov lavish funding and political carte blanche to fight terrorism since he came to power in 2005. Activists accuse him and his feared security forces of staggering abuses, including torture, kidnappings and murder.

“All these accusations are thrown around,” said Seagal, who was given a lavish welcome in Kadyrov’s palace. “Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?”

So what’s the real story here?  Has Steven Seagal finally had one of his outlandish, publicity-seeking claims pan out – is he really what the the most powerful nation on Earth needed to open doors overseas?  Or did he simply bamboozle a gaggle of highly visible congress-critters into getting top billing for just showing up and being allowed at the buffet?  Or are those same congress-critters shrewder than that, and were they knowingly using Seagal’s self-made mythology for their own cynical ends?

Regardless of the truth behind where Seagal’s usefulness really lies, it’s a fascinating story and one worthy of the Seagal mystique.



[1] I should probably also note that this delegation also travelled with Michele Bachmann, of all people. However, since she did not appear publicly and has not yet issued any public statements on the trip to Russia I’m relegating that interesting factoid to down here in the footnotes.

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Photo by thisgig The Very Weird Tales of Steven Seagal

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55 thoughts on “The Very Weird Tales of Steven Seagal

  1. Executive Decision was an all time favorite at our place when it came out. We’d only watch the first few minutes and all cheer when Segal falls out of the plane at 35,000 feet. Then we’d rewind and do it agin. Apparently /he/ was supposed to be the hero but was such a pain in the arse that they redid the script and waxed him instead.

    That Putin would be star struck by pseudo celebrity should come as a surprise to no one. I like that he gave Depardeau a condo (in Chechnya no less) and before he could move in the place burned down.

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    • Thanks for bringing up Executive Decision. I love that movie, in good part because of Seagal’s fate. (Actually, I have nothing against Seagal. I just thought it was cool to have an action movie where the action hero dies in the first twenty minutes.)

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  2. Dear God, the man’s story reads like something Dan Brown would have rejected as “too implausible.”

    But then, we live in a world with Dennis Rodman, goodwill ambassador, so at this point in my life I’m willing to believe anything.

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  3. America is the very triumph of image over substance. There’s a weird little episode in the later years of Ted Kennedy’s years in the Senate.

    I suppose every US senator has entertained a secret lust for the presidency at one time or another. Barack Obama came to Ted Kennedy in 2006, mooting the idea. Ted Kennedy told him “Your time only comes once, and this is your time,” according to an anonymous Kennedy aide.

    In 2006, Barack Obama had been in office just over one full year of a six year term. Why would Senator Kennedy say “this is your time” ? Because Obama hadn’t yet been sullied with much of a voting record in the Senate, as had Hillary Clinton. The Kennedys were themselves a triumph of image over substance. Machiavelli:

    Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

    Really, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Steven Seagal riding on top of Joe Arpaio’s armoured vehicles or in the company of those shitweasels Rohrabacher and King. Andy Warhol once said life is a series of images that change as they repeat themselves.

    Sure, facts and scientific progress might get our aircraft off the runways and the new Haswell chipset into the marketplace. But politics and the human heart have always been driven by images, apotheoses and incarnations of our daydreams. Steven Seagal and Ronald Reagan, and yes, even Barack Obama, succeeded, not on the basis of what they’d done, but because the human heart isn’t amenable to facts and track records. Vladimir Putin has beaten his chest for years, calling himself a martial arts expert. Let him press the flesh with another such expert.

    We had fed the heart on fantasies,
    The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
    More substance in our enmities
    Than in our love;

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  4. I think I saw a Seagal movie in the 1990s about a monster python. I knew pythons were probably not the safest of snakes to snuggle up with, but I didn’t know that they moved so fast. I mean, the actors were on top of ladders and the python would shoot up several yards out of the water and grab them.

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  5. A year later, he launched Lightning Bolt, an energy drink advertised to be the first ever to be made with Asian cordyceps.

    Wait, the fungus that mind-controls insects? Cool. I wouldn’t have guessed it as being edible.

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  6. My husband likes Seagal and has probably seen most of his movies, many of which he’s watched much more than once. My husband is Russian. Maybe there’s a connection–perhaps Seagal addresses the dark Russian soul in a way few other actors can.

    All I can say is that when I read about this nonsense earlier today, my immediate reaction was “WTF. You’ve got to be kidding.”

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    • “My husband likes Seagal and has probably seen most of his movies, many of which he’s watched much more than once. My husband is Russian. Maybe there’s a connection–perhaps Seagal addresses the dark Russian soul in a way few other actors can.”

      I think I just heard Stanislavski and Chekhov rolling in their graves.

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    • Maybe Russians really like that elbow-breaking noise? I’m pretty sure Seagal was contractually obligated to break one elbow — complete with disturbing visual effects (if crude) — per movie.

      Don’t get me wrong: I love me a good fight scene. Seagal’s only edge there was…not realism, per se, but a sort of slightly more realistic ruthlessness that was absent at the time. I mean, real hand-to-hand fights involve broken bones and ugly sounds, not jumping kicks to the face or splits (although also love me some Jackie Chan).

      So you had a god-awful — even by action movie standards — actor whose fight scenes were worse than average, if a bit bloodier/nastier than average at the time and that’s it.

      It’s got less rewatchability than Bloodsport, which at least has the awesomeness of a fairly…apt…version of monkey kung fu. (You get the gist of it, even if it’s your usual fight scene stuff). I’d rather rewatch Drunken Master II than anything, though. :)

      Jackie Chan’s Drunken Fist is quite awesome to behold.

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      • My husband’s requirements for a good movie are chase scenes, explosions, and pretty women. A good fight scene or two is a bonus. Seagal’s movies tend to feature all of the above.

        I remember seeing one Seagal film, ostensibly set in Chicago, where the pony-tailed one went up against some kind of Jamaican voodoo gang. Lots of blood, gore, and bones cracking. The only problem (well not the only problem but one of the most obvious ones) was that the chase scenes were obviously filmed in downtown L.A. Not too many palm trees in Chicago.

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    • An interesting fact from that lawsuit is the accuser’s allegation that Seagal kept two young _Russian_ girls on staff essentially as sex workers, and she was hired to replace one of them. (Instead of the personal assistant position she thought she was hired for.)

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      • That guy was a one man crime wave. Didn’t he actually get caught because he was paid to issue a DUI to a guy in a custody battle? He was also stealing drugs from dealers and reselling them with some fool partner calling himself a “private detective” as a henchman. They ran the whole thing out of their happy ending massage parlor. They tripped over themselves squealing on each other, too, as I recall.

        And the best part is he was the head of the Narcotics Division for the county. It’s as great a story as the Crime Lab technician who was smoking all the crack samples in San Francisco.

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        • The whole story was insane! And I remember all the stories about SF possibly having to throw out hundreds if not thousands of court cases because of issues at the drug-forensic lab and possibly other forensic labs.

          I don’t remember why the guy in Contra Costa got caught but “one man crime wave” was a good description of the guy.

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  7. Well he certainly knows how to hustle.

    I’m waiting for someone to talk about how all Americans should hustle like Seagal.

    We seem to like this kind of stuff as a nation……..

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  8. . . . to take out the crazed and/or terrorist gunmen with “marital arts.”
    This is a much under-used tactic in the repertoire of many major metro PD’s in this country.
    It’s a very effective and tine-tested technique.
    A little candlelight, a little peek-a-boo from Mr. Frederick’s– no crazed and/or terrorist gunman could stand a chance against that.

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