Steven Seagal

Steven Seagal
Steven Seagal

It wasn't just like in the movies. It was a Mafia reality show. In films, Steven Seagal handled the bad guys with splattery aplomb. But in real life he was up against the Mafia, whose credo, no matter the situation, was always the same: turn fear into money. In Seagal's case it was some $700,000 for starters and more to come later.

How did it happen that Seagal came to be in a real-life shakedown script with him as the intended victim who allegedly was determined not to reveal any payoffs were made? Seagal's woes began in the summer of 2001 when the actor split with his business partner of 15 years, producer and accused mob associate Jules Nasso. The latter responded by hitting the star with a $60 million lawsuit.

As the dispute raged, neither participant knew that the FBI was deep into an investigation of the Gambino crime family and taped a conversation allegedly between Nasso and a reputed hard-eyed New York capo named Sonny Ciccone in which the pair discussed extorting money from an "entertainment figure" later identified as Seagal. Nasso and Ciccone were charged with extortion.

It must be said that getting information out of Seagal was like pulling teeth. But the truth came out after a court ordered the actor to overcome his reluctance and appear for testimony. Finally Seagal apparently had no recourse but to testify, and while it had the elements of a scene straight out of a bad Hollywood movie, he was picked up by "guides" who took him by car to Brooklyn with an obligatory switch of vehicles to prevent pursuit.

In the end he was deposited in the darkened upstairs dining room of Gage & Tollner, a landmark Brooklyn restaurant, where the specific mob threat was made that Seagal would have to pay $700,000 for severing his business ties with Nasso, an associate of the Gambinos and the brother of a genuine soldier in the mob.

Among other matters besides the shakedown for money, Sonny Ciccone lectured the actor on the matter of eye contact, something highly practiced in film art, after Seagal let his gaze wander as the capo was speaking. As Seagal later put it, "Sonny explained to me that it would be better if I looked at him when I spoke."

The experience so intimidated the screen tough guy that he agreed to pay the $700,000 as a down payment on $3 million. (It was to be left for later that Ciccone also would demand $150,000 for every future Seagal film.) Later, after the shakedown meeting, Nasso informed Seagal that if he had balked, he would have been killed. That too had certain comic overtones.

It turned out neither Ciccone or his underling nor the Nassos were armed, and the FBI bugged a conversation between Ciccone and another mobster chortling how scared Seagal was, adding it was right out of the movies and "if we only had guns in our belts, it would be really good." By contrast Seagal told jurors he had a licensed weapon on him for the meeting, saying, "In New York, I always carry a gun."

In the ensuing investigation Seagal seemed to shift in and out of his film persona, insisting at the later trial he never was frightened but was "uncomfortable" and "increasingly uncomfortable." And he was prepared to fight back. Under prosecution questioning, Seagal said he went to see an imprisoned mobster of another crime family whom he knew for help in the matter. Seagal said he could not turn to the government because, in part, he was too well known.

"I can't go in the witness protection program. They can't help me." If sometimes on the stand Seagal held to his tough guy image and bellowed his answers to defense attorneys, there were other signs of a more tame attitude. He had to put on reading glasses to study court exhibits and carefully arranged two shawls over his lap, apparently to warm his chilly knees.

Careerwise, Seagal's moviemaking had veered toward a more placid approach, which apparently may have led to the dispute between Seagal and Nasso. He apparently was eschewing extreme violence because of his adoption of Buddhism. In interviews the Nasso camp insisted Seagal had walked out on movie commitments because his Buddhist advisers had warned him that his violent movies could stand in the way of "felicitous reincarnation."

Seagal gave a very worldly response to this by declaring in court, "That's the dumbest lie I've ever heard in my life." He said he broke up his partnership with Nasso because the latter was an abusive person who was on mood-elevating drugs and "going into psychotic rages."

While the Seagal case drew the most media coverage, the government concentrated more on convicting Ciccone and Nasso's brother Vincent on waterfront racket charges. Julius R. Nasso was sentenced in the Seagal matter after a guilty plea, drawing a prison term of a year and a day. Under a plea agreement, Nasso agreed to pay a $75,000 fine and receive mental health counseling after his release.

It seemed clear enough the mob had had their fill of Seagal. As to whether the actor's future films will be on the tamer side in his apparent pursuit of felicitous reincarnation, will have to be left to Seagal enthusiasts as they monitor the splats, whacks and bams to be offered to an adoring public.