by Paul Lieberman
Jul 12, 2002
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 2002 All rights reserved)
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When Life Imitates a B-Movie; Steven Seagal's ex- partner, accused of plotting with mob figures to extort money from the star, calls their saga a 'magic carpet ride.'
When Steven Seagal first surfaced in Hollywood, as a ponytailed 6- foot-4 martial arts expert, he offered a background story full of murk and menace. He hinted in hushed tones of having done "special favors" for the CIA. Whether anyone believed him hardly mattered-- what counted was how he put over the tough-guy image in films that cast him as a lone avenger caught in ominous conspiracies.
Julius R. Nasso showed up in town as a wannabe of a different sort. He presented himself as the poor immigrant from Brooklyn who started a pharmaceutical business with $500 saved from a clerk's job- -in a church. Then he set out, like so many others, to make movies. And for him, it happened.
During a partnership that lasted more than a decade, Seagal starred in films that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and Nasso helped produce them. They were close, almost like brothers. Seagal bought the house next to Nasso's mansion on Staten Island and they often dressed alike, all in black, just in different sizes. Nasso was a foot shorter than the imposing actor.
Nasso also was the easy one to deal with. Like many performers, Seagal could be self-centered and moody--"a stubborn, maniacal idiot," as he once described himself. But it was hard to find anyone who didn't like Nasso. "I would go in," he said, "and clean up the mess."
Yet it was worth it, he insisted. Every minute with Seagal.
"I went on the magic carpet ride with him," Nasso explained.
He says that even as the magic carpet threatens to land him in prison.
Nasso is free on $1.5-million bail, preparing his defense against a federal indictment that depicts him as an associate of the Gambino crime family, ruled in recent years by John Gotti and his kin. Last month, prosecutors revealed that a microphone planted to get evidence of mob influence over New York-area docks had picked up a meeting in a restaurant between the 49-year-old Nasso and a local Mafia captain.
Their alleged topic of conversation? A scheme to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from "an individual in the film industry" who was not named but whose identity was no secret: the don't-mess- with-me actor who broke noses and bones on screen.
Only a few snippets of dialogue have been released, but one has Nasso saying to the mob capo, "Tell me what I have to do and I'll do it."
It seemed like a plot turn out of the thrillers that earned Seagal and Nasso their stripes--and another chapter in the long history of mutual fascination between tough-guy actors and their real-world counterparts.
Seagal, who is expected to be a key prosecution witness against Nasso and reputed mob enforcers, is talking only through his lawyers- -who insist he had no knowledge that his partner might have had such friends.
Nasso, even while denying any wrongdoing, wonders how Seagal could profess ignorance on that point. Didn't he know the kind of people Nasso grew up around? Wasn't one of Nasso's brothers married to a Gambino?
"How could he not know?" Nasso asked.
So Nasso sat down recently to fill in what Hollywood calls the "back story" to a relationship he uses a film analogy to explain.
"It was like 'Fatal Attraction,' " Nasso said, "without the sex."
Where Did They Meet?
What attracted him first was Hollywood. He noticed right away how "anyone could walk around and say, 'I'm a producer.' " He sensed that to become a real player, "you have to do your time." He saw Seagal as his way to do it.
Nasso has often said he met Seagal in Japan, while on business for Universal Marine Medical Supplies, his Brooklyn-based company that sells pharmaceuticals and health gear to cruise lines and merchant ships. Nasso said he needed a translator and looked up Seagal, who was fluent in the language: He'd been married to a Japanese woman and had run a martial arts studio in Japan.
Nasso sometimes told people he and Seagal were distant cousins. They're not, and the whole Japan story is "puffery," Nasso now acknowledges.
He now says they met in Los Angeles in early 1987.
Nasso had been bitten by the show biz bug seven years earlier, when Italian director Sergio Leone came to Brooklyn to film the mob saga "Once Upon a Time in America." Actor Danny Aiello, who was in it, said that Nasso caught on as a translator and gofer for the director. Nasso, whose parents emigrated from Italy when he was 3, spoke Italian and English with equal ease.
After that, when Nasso came to L.A. on business, he would look up actors from his old Brooklyn neighborhood.
One was Jimmy Baio, who had gotten his break in the spoof sitcom "Soap."
Baio said Nasso was wide-eyed around anyone on TV and in the movies, and jumped at the chance to attend sitcom tapings.
Baio said he brought Nasso to a party where Seagal was a guest, and the two hit it off.
In later years, Nasso led friends to believe he "created" the star-to-be, molding everything from Seagal's squint-eyed stare to his pulled-back hairstyle.
In reality, Seagal had long-standing Hollywood dreams of his own. His first wife, Miyako Fujitani, recalls him plotting out script ideas after they met in 1974, when he was 23. "He developed a story about a foreigner becoming a dojo master, then went on to the U.S.," she said.
By the time Nasso met him, Seagal had a new Hollywood wife, actress Kelly LeBrock, and a powerful booster, "superagent" Michael Ovitz. Ovitz's agency set up a demonstration so Warner Bros. executives could see Seagal flip aside a parade of attackers. The result was his screen debut, at 37, in "Above the Law," about a former CIA operative who discovers nefarious plots in the agency.
Before it hit theaters in 1988, Seagal was profiled in a Times piece that cast a skeptical eye on his vague stories of having a "CIA godfather" in Japan. But it also found the gun-enthusiast actor a plausible rival to such reigning action kings as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and he was: "Above the Law" brought in 2 1/2 times its $7.5-million budget.
Nasso describes himself as basically an unpaid intern on Seagal's first movies, learning what he could with one goal: "recognition."
One thing he was able to do for Seagal, friends say, was set up a dinner with Leone during a promotional trip to Italy. Nasso also invited the actor to spend time at his waterfront house, "the most beautiful home in Staten Island," Baio said. One room was filled with glass-enclosed models of the Titanic and other ships.
"He did want to impress Steven, and it worked," Baio said.
When Seagal decided to form his own production company, it became Seagal Nasso Productions.
Nasso got his first credit on Seagal's third movie, "Marked for Death," as an associate producer. He moved up to executive producer on "Out for Justice," which was filmed in 1990 on his old turf, Brooklyn.
Nasso was ready for his recognition. A New York public relations man pitched him as "a Horatio Alger character."
Three newspapers did profiles tracing his rise from humble roots, one account saying he had two doctorates, apparently not realizing that Nasso proudly counts a 1979 testimonial dinner at Fordham University as the equivalent of an honorary degree and bases his other on a membership certificate from the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Assn.
Another profile mentioned that his early jobs included pouring concrete for an "influential uncle," with no mention of how the elder Nasso's name had come up at a 1980s mob trial. According to testimony, the uncle attended a meeting with the then-head of the Gambino crime family to discuss the contract to pour concrete for the Jacob Javits Convention Center.
Later, when Spy magazine questioned such ties, Seagal filed a suit--eventually dropped--claiming false and defamatory statements, one being that he was "friends with individuals who have ties to the 'Mafia.' "
If Seagal wanted to distance himself from such associations, other actors have flaunted their hobnobbing, from early screen hoodlum George Raft, who grew up alongside the real thing in New York, to James Caan, Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather," who traced his friendships with mob luminaries to "research" for his films.
"Am I rubbing their elbows or are they rubbing mine?" asked Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, the 69-year-old son of the late mob boss Joe Bonanno, one of many onetime wise guys who have gotten acting work.
One of his gigs: a bit part in Seagal and Nasso's "Out for Justice."
In 1992, after Seagal scored his biggest hit with "Under Siege," he and Nasso planned a mob-themed picture, "Man of Honor," about the son of a Mafia kingpin who becomes bodyguard for a beautiful informant. But their backer, a Saudi prince, stopped funding. In litigation with the prince, Seagal and Nasso presented themselves as unsophisticated about the business.
"I'm an artist," Seagal said in a deposition, adding that when the prince asked to fund the movie, "I said, 'Great. Talk to Jules.' "
View From the Studio
But studio veterans who worked with Nasso viewed him more as a talent manager--and benefactor--for Seagal than as a typical producer. Nasso later said he loaned Seagal $3.2 million over the years.
"Jules was giving him money out of his own pocket. He treated [Seagal] like he treated his own son," said Aiello, who became friends with Nasso. If Nasso sensed that Seagal was upset, he would fly to California "on a moment's notice," Aiello said.
Nasso said he believed he was assisting "the next John Wayne."
But the magic carpet began to turn downward about the time Seagal made his directing debut in 1994's "On Deadly Ground," in which he battled a corrupt oil company. While the film opened atop the box office chart, critics chided Seagal for becoming preachy, giving himself a 10-minute save-the-environment speech.
Later that year, filming of "Under Siege 2" was marred by clashes between the star and production personnel.
Nasso said Seagal became depressed on that shoot and started gaining weight after he was served with divorce papers by LeBrock, with whom he'd had three children.
In a lawsuit over the eventual breakup of their partnership, Nasso complained that Seagal soon came under "the active interference of a Buddhist spiritual advisor known as Mukara [and] a clandestine and unorthodox Tibetan sect," some of whose adherents camped in tents at Seagal's Los Angeles home.
Although a lawyer for Seagal called the allegation "absurd," the actor's religious life drew headlines in 1997, when a well- recognized Tibetan Buddhist leader named him a "tulku," a reincarnation "of the [17th century] treasure revealer Chungdrag Dorje."
Seagal heard the jokes. "They think the lamas are taking bribes," he said during a Buddhist retreat in Colorado. "Well, lamas don't have TVs and they don't know what a movie star is ... and they have said there is no doubt that I am tulku."
That year, Warner Bros. ended its exclusive production deal with Seagal and Nasso, with a studio executive saying, "This guy has been on a downhill run."
According to Nasso's subsequent suit, that provided the opening for him and Seagal to "develop, produce and market" projects on their own. He said he bought scripts and went overseas to sell $25.3 million in foreign rights to four films, "all of which stated that he [Seagal] was to be the star."
But only one was made: "Prince of Central Park," with Nasso's 13- year-old son playing an abused child who flees to the park. Harvey Keitel ended up playing the gnome who befriends him after Seagal "refused to appear," Nasso complained.
Seagal's lawyers say there was no "enforceable contract" requiring him to act in those films. New York attorney Martin L. Perschetz said there also were "solid business reasons" for Seagal to move away from his partner. Nasso had proved to be "unproductive and unprofessional ... like showing up late on the set" and was "rude and boisterous toward other people," another Seagal spokesman said.
Seagal may simply have had better offers.
Although he was nearing 50, getting on for an action hero, Warner Bros. gave him a comeback shot in "Exit Wounds," with rapper DMX. Seagal was slimmed down, and without his ponytail, for the filming in Toronto in August 2000.
Soon after, Daily Variety ran a short item reporting that Nasso was "moving away from action pics to softer fare" and forming his own company in New York. Seagal closed their L.A. office.
Federal prosecutors said that's about when the mob began conspiring to extort "a figure in the motion picture industry."
After a team of FBI agents arrived at Nasso's front door with handcuffs, at 6 a.m. on June 4, attorneys for the producer offered their own explanation of the charges: retaliation by Seagal.
In March, Nasso had filed his suit seeking $60 million in damages for the actor's failure to do the four films. "Do you think it's a coincidence that this happens after that?" asked Nasso's civil lawyer, Robert J. Hantman.
But federal prosecutors said it was coincidence--almost a fluke, in fact, that they uncovered the plot against Seagal.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Genser said a three-year investigation had targeted mob influence at the waterfront all the way up to the latest leader of the Gambino crime family, Peter Gotti, brother of the late "Dapper Don." The indictment named 17 higher-ups, soldiers and associates of the family, including members of the strong-arm crew run by Anthony "Sonny" Ciccone, a 67-year- old mob captain who allegedly called the shots at the dockworkers' union.
FBI agents monitored the phones of Ciccone's men and planted three bugs at tables at Brioso Ristorante in Staten Island, one of which recorded a man identified as Nasso speaking with the capo last year.
In a summary submitted at a bail hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, prosecutors said Ciccone plotted to use the mob's muscle "to pressure the [film figure] to either pay money or include J. Nasso in the individual's film projects." He also told Nasso to "demand that the victim pay Ciccone $150,000 for each film the individual made," the document said.
Genser, the prosecutor, said in court that Ciccone was caught "admitting on tape that he's been threatening to kill this individual."
Court papers make no mention of Seagal paying extortion money, but say Ciccone "on more than one occasion" met with the intended victim.
Seagal told authorities that one such visit was in Toronto, during the making of "Exit Wounds."
Attorneys for Nasso, who is charged with conspiracy and attempted extortion, have not heard the tapes. But they have already floated another defense: that the actor knew these people on his own.
"Steven Seagal is a mob nut," criminal lawyer Barry Levin said after Nasso's arrest.
The actor's lawyers angrily accused Nasso's side of trying to smear the victim in the case.
But they acknowledge that Seagal may have met organized crime figures while interviewing "various people for authenticity" for the mob movie he and Nasso worked on.
As to whether Seagal knew of Nasso's alleged underworld connections, the Seagal camp allows that Nasso at times "acted as if" he knew mob figures but "no one believed him."
Such talk was dismissed, a Seagal spokesman said, as "people trying to get attention in Tinseltown."
Friends say they understand how Nasso could wind up at a table with Sonny Ciccone's crew.
Aiello said it was impossible not to meet "these people" in certain restaurants around New York. "If they walk over, what would you say, 'Get away'? "
When Nasso was asked how he wound up at that table, he said, "It's the neighborhood. I know them 30 years."
His lawyers would not let him talk about the restaurant conversation or those acquaintances. But Nasso went on for hours recently about his Hollywood career. Even with what's on the line-- "my freedom, my life"--he was eager to be seen as a legitimate player in that world.
Nasso has compiled a list of moments: a 1991 lunch at Le Cirque with Terry Semel, then chief executive of Warner Bros.; accompanying Donald Trump to the 1993 opening of the studio's store in Manhattan; going with Seagal to David Letterman's show to promote "On Deadly Ground." And on it goes.
He produced proclamations praising him for bringing filming to local streets, one declaring "Julius Nasso Day" on Staten Island. He reached in his wallet to show his Directors Guild card. "You don't get one of these," he says, "hanging around a cafe."
He is not the only one in his family embroiled in the criminal case. His brother Vincent, 43, is accused of paying the mob $400,000 in kickbacks in return for a three-year contract to administer a union prescription plan.
A second brother in health care, a chiropractor, was not implicated. He's the one who in 1989 married a daughter of Johnny Gambino, an imprisoned mob captain.
Nasso says he and Seagal were so close by then, "he escorted my mother up the aisle .... Steven was the star of the wedding."
Seagal's camp says that he is "still a big star," with two new films in the can and two more on deck. He also produces soothing herbal "essential oils," which are sold worldwide, on his Diamond Lotus Ranch near Mt. Shasta.
As for Nasso, he can't help worrying whether his magic carpet ride is over--with his pharmaceutical business. Since his arrest, "it's down 50%," he says.
But Hollywood? "Something like this makes you bigger out there," he said, with amazement.
How dare the prosecutor describe him in court as a "self-styled" producer?
As friend Aiello sees it, the great irony was in what Nasso did after the split from Seagal.
He made movies.
One, called "One Eyed King," is in the can. Nasso also was a producer of "Narc," shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January. That film, starring Ray Liotta, goes into nationwide release this fall. Tom Cruise signed on as an executive producer.
Nasso wouldn't miss the premiere if his life depended on it.
"Why wouldn't I go?" he asked Thursday. "The film is a Julius R. Nasso Production."
Times researcher Tracy Thomas in Los Angeles and staff writer Mark Magnier in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Caption: PHOTO: Steven Seagal, left, and Julius R. Nasso on location in Colorado for 1995's "Under Siege 2." No longer working together, both have films in the can.; PHOTOGRAPHER: JOEL DAVID
Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER