Here’s The Real Reason The Mafia Went After Steven Seagal

Steven Seagal might be a Hollywood punchline, but in the 1990s he was one of the top action stars in the business. He’d gained a reputation as a tough guy, due to his extensive knowledge of martial arts. But his true toughness was put to the test in the early 2000s when he ran afoul of the mob. And in a terrifying episode, Seagal said he was forced into a vehicle before being whisked away for a crisis meeting with gangsters.

In 2001 Seagal starred in Exit Wounds, an action movie that teamed him with rapper DMX. The film was a hit, but when he tried to replicate the same formula alongside Ja Rule in 2002’s Half Past Dead, it flopped. From then on, the actor became firmly mired in direct-to-video territory, with only a supporting role in Machete seeing cinema screens.

Even as his theatrical movie career was mostly drying up, Seagal crossed into the world of music. He released two albums: Songs From The Crystal Cave in 2005 and Mojo Priest in 2006. Somewhat predictably, critical response was negative. AllMusic wrote, “all of this music takes itself so seriously that it borders on delusional excess.”

In the end, Seagal moved into reality TV in 2009 with Steven Seagal: Lawman. It followed the actor in his role as a reserve deputy sheriff in Louisiana and Arizona. The show lasted three seasons but, once again, was savaged by critics, with Alan Sepinwall writing, “Seagal has cemented his position as an accidental comedy savant.”

It was a far cry from the string of hits Seagal enjoyed for over a decade, most of which were produced by Julius R. Nasso. Nasso was working with Warner Brothers when Above The Law, Seagal’s acting debut, was released. Further Warner titles like Marked For Death, Under Siege and The Glimmer Man were all Seagal/Nasso efforts. So far, so mafia-free life.

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Plus the two men became best friends on top of being successful business associates. And they even lived next door to each other in Staten Island. The movies they made together grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and made Seagal one of the premier action stars of the era.

It was an incredible rise for Nasso, who founded a pharmaceutical company in 1974 before deciding he wanted to try to make it big in Hollywood. His first job in the movie business was as director Sergio Leone’s personal assistant. When Leone came to New York to film sections of 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America, Nasso learnt on the job.

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As for Seagal, his life pre-Hollywood has always been something of a web of mystery and alleged half truths. For instance, it’s known that he practiced aikido at a dojo in Fullerton, California as a teenager. He later moved to Japan and claimed it was to study aikido with Morihei Uyeshiba, the founder of the discipline. But the accuracy of this claim has been disputed.

There was more confusion when Seagal hit the big time, as it was highly publicized that he was the first non-Asian person ever to own a dojo in Japan. But People magazine wrote in 1990 that the dojo he taught at was owned by his lover’s family, not Seagal himself. He also made a seemingly outlandish claim about his time in Japan, one that he would later deny he’d ever said.

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When speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 1988, Seagal alleged that he came into contact with people, from a “particular agency.” He said, “These guys were my students. They saw my abilities both with martial arts and with the language. You can say that I became an advisor 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.”

But sources associated with the CIA told People in 1990 that his claim was unlikely, though the agency never officially confirmed or denied it. Seagal would bring it up again during the press circuit for Above The Law, the plot of which concerned an ex-CIA agent. He reportedly told the Today show’s Jane Pauley, “There are certain parts of the movie that are very autobiographical.”

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Anyway, Seagal and Nasso were initially friends. As Anthony Bruno of TruTV wrote in his article “Steven Seagal and the Mob,” Seagal was attracted to Nasso’s demeanor. He liked that Nasso presented himself as an honorable man. Well, as honorable as someone can be with an alleged mob connection.

And Bruno revealed that the men first met at an Italian deli in Beverly Hills in 1986. Seagal was reportedly so charmed by Nasso’s old school mob act that he began to tell anyone who would listen that they were related. He even claimed they came of age on the streets of Brooklyn together. This just wasn’t true.

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Nasso saw Seagal as someone he could attach himself to in order to break into Hollywood, according to Bruno. So the two men formed Seagal/Nasso Productions and began pumping out action movies. The production company later changed its name to Steamroller Productions after Seagal and Nasso went their separate ways in 2000.

This was the year Seagal and Nasso had a serious disagreement. Their production deal with Warner Brothers had ended in 1997, but Nasso claimed he still had four more action movies lined up for Seagal to star in. And he’d already sold the distribution rights for the upcoming films in foreign markets, meaning he had a lot riding on the deals.

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To Nasso’s chagrin, Seagal decided he didn’t want to make violent films anymore, as they conflicted with his Buddhist religious beliefs. And in 1997 Tibetan Buddhist throne holder Penor Rinpoche said Seagal was a “tulku,” which meant he had the spirit of 17th century Buddhist master Chungdrag Dorje inside him. Wow. Who knew?

So it’s no wonder Seagal didn’t want to shoot and kill people on-screen anymore. After all, how could a person who seemingly glamorizes violence be enlightened? In any case, Rinpoche explained, “Such movies are for temporary entertainment and do not relate to what is real and important.” He added, “It is possible to be both a popular movie star and a tulku.”

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Taking no heed of his former pal’s spiritual beliefs, Nasso filed a $60 million lawsuit against Seagal in 2002. He claimed that the star had gone back on an agreement to develop and star in the four movies. Seagal flat out denied there was any such arrangement. But over time, the situation turned nasty, with Nasso allegedly trying to strongarm Seagal – and it landed them both in court.

Indeed, the following year Seagal appeared as a government witness at the racketeering trial of Peter Gotti and 16 other alleged associates of the Gambino crime family. Why was Seagal there? Well, Nasso and his brother Vincent were also part of the indictment. And it was all about to get kind of interesting.

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You see, the FBI had arrested Nasso on suspicion of conspiring with mafiosi to extort Seagal – in other words using his Gambino connections to intimidate the actor. And the underhanded plan was discovered completely by accident, when the Feds heard Nasso talking with a local mobster in a New York Italian restaurant. Unbeknownst to the producer and his organized crime pals, the FBI had the restaurant bugged.

When he took the stand, Seagal testified that he was first threatened by Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone in 2000. He said that they’d wanted him to continue working with Nasso, but also alleged they ordered him to pay the Gambino family $150,000 for every movie he made with the producer. Seagal said he tried his best to buy time by agreeing to a reunion with Nasso, reported CBS News.

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Seagal claimed that Ciccone had said, “Look at me when I talk to you. We’re proud people. Work with Jules and we’ll split the pie.” And Seagal added, “These were people who were not going to let it go.” According to The New York Times coverage of the case, Seagal had earlier been “ordered into a car” to attend the meeting at the restaurant. So perhaps he was already a little intimidated.

The action star even alleged that he was told, “If you would have said the wrong thing, they would have killed you.” Nasso, for his part, was heard on the FBI wiretap warning the mobsters that Seagal wouldn’t crack easily. Yes, he seemed to think his former friend wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

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According to TruTV, it was Nasso’s belief that the gangsters needed to create a situation in which Seagal was forced to bow to their demands. On the wiretap, he reportedly said, “You really gotta get down on him. Because I know this animal, I know this beast. You know, unless there’s a fire under his ass.”

Government prosecutors said in court that the FBI wiretap in the restaurant had recorded Nasso himself being told by the Gambinos to shake Seagal down for money. In fact, the mobsters were recorded laughing to themselves about how frightened the actor looked at the meeting. Being described as “petrified” would surely not have sat well with self-proclaimed tough guy Seagal.

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But Seagal must have been worried about his safety because he testified that he was armed at the meeting. The actor stated, “In New York, I always carry a gun.” Yet the defense team rubbished Seagal’s take on the situation, claiming he was, “a pathological liar,” reported CBS News.

Nasso’s attorney George Santangelo claimed that his client was nothing less than professional in his dealings with Seagal. Nasso simply wanted the actor to pay him back $500,000 he borrowed to pay his taxes. At one point during Seagal’s cross-examination, Santangelo jumped things up several notches when he enquired about something so outlandish it caused the actor to reply, “This is insane.”

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Hear this – Santangelo wanted to know if Seagal had ever attempted to hire a former CIA agent to murder someone. Naturally, the judge struck the far-fetched question from the record, but not before Seagal exclaimed, “I’m not on trial here.” According to CBS News, Seagal said that while he didn’t ask for federal protection from the Gambinos, he knew he didn’t want to cross them either.

“I’m a movie star,” stated Seagal. “If you want to keep making movies, you don’t want to start a war with these people.” When interviewed outside the court building, Seagal revealed to reporters that he was given no choice but to testify. He lamented, “I don’t think I accomplished anything other than to comply with a government order to testify or go to jail.”

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In the end, Nasso pleaded guilty to the attempted extortion. And in August 2003 he was sentenced to one year in an Ohio federal prison. His sentence was relatively lenient, perhaps because the judge took umbrage with the government’s characterization of him as a “mob associate.” Rather, he felt Nasso’s misdeeds were a one-off.

So Nasso served his time, even being released two months early due to good behavior. The lawsuit that he had filed against Seagal in 2002, before he went to prison, wound up rolling on for six long years. It was eventually settled in January 2008 when both men agreed to terms, out of court. Nasso told The Advance, “This civil case was about vindication and getting my reputation back.”

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“I am relieved after six years of civil litigation that Steven and I have cleared up our misunderstandings, reached an amicable resolution and settled our differences,” continued Nasso. In terms of the money he was awarded, Nasso likely didn’t get the $60 million he filed for. The Los Angeles Times suggested that he would get $500,000 from Seagal. Either way, Nasso said, “I got a lot more than I expected.”

But Nasso didn’t just want money from his former business partner. He also persuaded Seagal to sign a letter advocating a presidential pardon for his conviction. The letter, which was sent to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Department of Justice, was important to the film producer, who was intent on clearing his name.

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The letter from Seagal read, “I am writing this letter to indicate that I have no objection to and would support the application, when it is timely, of Julius R. Nasso for a Presidential pardon.” Nasso told The Advance, “It speaks volumes that [Steven] has agreed to support my application for a presidential pardon in the future.” Seagal made no comment to the media, though.

At this point, Nasso’s attorney Robert Hantman told Page Six that his client had returned to producing movies. He added, “Julius is now looking forward to hopefully getting a pardon. Seagal supporting him for a pardon is apropos of two close friends who had a falling out.” Yet, incredibly, history would repeat itself when Darc, Nasso’s next producing effort, turned into a legal saga all of its own.

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In 2018 Nasso sued martial arts Grandmaster Jhong Uhk Kim, his partner in producing Darc, for $10 million. The film wound up streaming on Netflix, but Hantman argued that Kim abandoned his responsibilities in financing and promoting the movie. This relegated the film to a, “short shelf-life and near-certain financial failure.”

“It’s breaking Mr. Nasso’s heart that Master. Kim isn’t doing everything he can to promote an excellent film,” said Hantman. “Master. Kim isn’t following up on his responsibilities. He’s very concerned about him. He’s looking forward to meeting Master. Kim in a courtroom, but not in a dojo.” Nasso’s lawsuit claimed Kim’s actions were, “unexpected, bizarre, intentional and grossly negligent.”

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It was a sad turn of events for another of Nasso’s friendships. He had known Kim for over three decades, and Kim had even taught Nasso’s sons martial arts at one of his dojos in New York. The two men had sunk $6 million collectively into the production of Darc, which featured Kim and his sons in on-screen roles, reported The Advance.

As for the $500,000 Seagal agreed to pay Nasso back in 2008, that saga rolled on into 2012. In January of that year, Nasso sued Seagal again, claiming he hadn’t kept up with his payments. The lawsuit alleged that Seagal hadn’t paid two instalments of $50,000 in 2011 and that Nasso wanted that money, plus 10 percent extra for, “breach of settlement agreement.”

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But that wasn’t all – and actually it never appears to be “all” when it comes to these two. Because Nasso had filed a similar lawsuit in 2010, which was resolved, “only after significant legal expense.” Due to this, Nasso’s new suit read, “Considering the prior breaches by the defendant, we respectfully request that this court order that the outstanding and remaining payments under the agreement are now due, totalling $200,000.” So much for any kind of reconciliation.

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