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Does Steven Seagal Owe His Entire Career to a Bet?

The truth behind the Hard-to-Kill rumor that Seagal was made into a star so super agent Michael Ovitz could prove just how powerful he was

Steven Seagal is a weird guy, a giant man with unusual taste in jackets and an increasingly unlikely hair situation. There has always been a mystique surrounding him — part of it self-imposed due to his tendency to self-aggrandize, and part of it inevitable due to the sheer strangeness of his career and life.

One long-standing rumor claims that the only reason Seagal even has a movie career was because of a bet made by Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz. The bet: That Ovitz was so powerful he could make even the least charismatic asshole he’d ever met — like his shithead aikido teacher (aka Seagal) — into a movie star. Ovitz pulled some strings, worked his magic, and bingo, the most unremarkable guy he knew was on billboards.

Looking at Seagal in 2021, there’s certainly something about the rumor that feels plausible. He seems like a very unlikely leading man — his projects these days typically feel like he was on set for about three hours, kept his own clothes on and refused to stand up. Half his lines appear to be overdubbed by other actors at a later date, and anything even approaching a fight scene seems to be done by stunt doubles operating in heavy shadow. 

So it’s easy enough to believe that his whole career comes down to a wager by incredibly powerful Hollywood string-pullers, multimillionaires playing around with other people’s fates like the Duke brothers in Trading Places — in this case, fooling the whole world into believing a charisma void had star quality.

It doesn’t really hold up though. If you were trying to prove a point by making the least charismatic person you could find into a movie star, you’d find someone a lot shitter than 1987 Steven Seagal. If you watch Above the Law, his debut performance, he’s definitely got something to him. You can fully see why people would be on board with this guy being the next big thing.

You know how implausible it is in She’s All That when, of all the unlikely people they could choose for Freddie Prinze Jr. to transform into prom queen, they choose the clearly strikingly beautiful Rachael Leigh Cook? It’s kind of like that. If you challenged someone to find the most unlikely candidate for movie stardom they could, and they showed up with a “wickedly handsome” (People magazine), 6-foot-4, multilingual martial artist who had accomplished a bunch of cool shit and clearly led an interesting life, you’d say they were cheating. 

Seagal expert Outlaw Vern writes in his magnificent Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal: “Years later, as Seagal was ridiculed for gaining weight and making silly direct-to-video movies, revisionists would claim that he was not the real deal, that he had never been a very good martial artist and that he only made it into movies because of his connection to Ovitz. But the opening credits alone of Above the Law put the lie to that one. It’s maybe two minutes into the movie and he’s already flipping guys over, waving his hands at ridiculous speeds and even showing off by speaking Japanese.” 

Roger Ebert was certainly impressed by Seagal’s debut, writing that he had “a strong and particular screen presence” and that he could “play tender and play smart.”

Why, then, does the “make any asshole into a star” rumor persist? 

As with so many rumors, there’s clearly something in there that’s true — in this case the influence of Michael Ovitz. 

Ovitz co-founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in 1975, which went on to represent the biggest names in the world. He was Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Costner and Barbra Streisand’s agent all at once, while simultaneously overseeing corporate mergers worth billions. He was frequently referred to as the most powerful man in Hollywood. Ovitz clearly saw something in his aikido teacher, because he championed Seagal for stardom. After the initial screen test he arranged failed to impress executives, Ovitz convinced them to let Seagal return and do a live aikido demonstration, which led to Above the Law.

For an actor’s first role to be an above-the-title lead, complete with a producer credit and story credit, is pretty astonishing — even the biggest stars in the world do a few crappy roles on the way up. Seagal’s filmography consisted solely of stunt work on two Bond movies and a low-level John Frankenheimer film, and yet, he was suddenly a superstar (despite his very silly run). 

Seagal’s implausible rise to fame didn’t come with a lot of humility or self-deprecation. Despite a few of his characters’ one-liners being up there with the greatest ever (“I’m going to take you to the bank, Senator Trent — the blood bank!” is incredible, all the better for being delivered to a TV and not an actual person), Seagal has always come across as pretty humorless. Other action stars have been happy to have fun with their images, but Seagal has never done his equivalent of Kindergarten Cop, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot or those Van Damme Coors ads. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1991, according to David Spade, he refused to make fun of himself at all. “He wouldn’t do it,” Spade once recounted. “He wouldn’t play at all, and then in the other sketches, he was fighting us.” 

That image he didn’t want to make fun of was predicated on at least a certain amount of bullshit as well. Some of Seagal’s early achievements are undeniable — for instance, he was the first foreigner to run an aikido dojo in Japan — but he’s also claimed to have trained with martial arts masters he never actually met, frequently alludes to a career with the CIA that’s almost certainly nonexistent and lies about where he was born, downplaying his pleasant upbringing in Lansing, Michigan in favor of a rougher, more colorful, made-up Brooklyn background. In fact, his own mother has described him as a “puny” kid.

He’s also, of course, a gigantic fucking asshole. Over the years, Seagal has been accused of rape, sexual assault and sexual trafficking. There are multiple stories of him groping women during auditions. Jenny McCarthy, Portia de Rossi, Rae Dawn Chong, Eva LaRue and Julianna Margulies are among the many actresses who have accused him of sexual misconduct. He’s also referred to female reporters as “cocksuckers” and “a bunch of fucking dirty whores.” 

Meanwhile, he’s angered stunt performers on countless films — once in a way that allegedly led to a fight in which Seagal shit his pants — and actors who have performed opposite him rarely have kind words to say. Steven Tobolowsky has a great tale of reworking The Glimmer Man on the fly because Seagal had decided he wouldn’t kill people in movies anymore mid-filming. Bruce McGill (best known as D-Day from Animal House) tells a story of delightedly watching Seagal fall off a boat in a muumuu during the filming of Exit Wounds because he was being such an asshole that he forgot which door he was meant to go through. 

Moreover, Seagal’s politics are inconsistent at best and inhumane at worst. Although he was once an earnest environmentalist (see On Deadly Ground) and animal rights advocate — enough so that in 1999 he was awarded a PETA humanitarian award — and his early films had a noticeably left-wing slant, he’s become a real turd in the years since. He’s claimed athletes taking the knee during the National Anthem are “holding the world hostage.” He’s friends with Vladimir Putin and supported the annexing of Crimea by Russia — an act condemned as illegal by the international community — claiming it was “very reasonable.” He’s a big fan of Russia more generally, too, recently deciding he has Russian ancestry and frequently shitting the joint up with live martial arts performances during which he does zero work and enthusiastic students send themselves flying.

Most ironically, in his memoir Who Is Michael Ovitz?, the super agent describes how, after Ovitz had successfully made him into a movie star, Seagal fired him. Seagal was only a few years into his film career, but he felt like he should be winning Oscars rather than pigeonholed within the action world, telling Ovitz, “I think I’m as good an actor as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, all those guys.” Ovitz writes that Seagal “had fallen prey to the entirely human delusion that if you succeed in one arena you can do anything.”

Piecing it all together, it seems like the rumor’s persistence stems from a combination of a number of things. Ovitz undeniably kickstarted Seagal’s career, and almost certainly did a fair amount of shit-talking when he was subsequently fired — it’s easy enough to see how, whether from Ovitz himself doing the agenting equivalent of a post-breakup “I never loved you anyway” or an inadvertent Hollywood game of telephone, the “turning a talentless nobody into a superstar” narrative could stick. Then there’s a combination of Seagal’s later work being so crappy that it overshadows his better earlier stuff, and his decline from lithe, muscular fighter to weird-looking guy phoning in lazy performances and being accused of truly hideous behavior.

But the truth is, Steven Seagal wasn’t made into a star because he sucked. He was made into a star, and then he sucked.