Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Actor Steven Seagal and the Mob

"Precious Jewel"

Portrait of Penor Rinpoche
Portrait of Penor Rinpoche

By this time Seagal had already veered off onto another freeway on his spiritual journey. Through the late 90s, he sought out healers and holy men, often donating large sums to their causes. He settled on Buddhism and followed the teachings of Penor Rinpoche. In 1997 Seagal's teacher declared him a tulku, the embodiment of lama Chungdrag Dorje, the founder of a 17th century Tibetan monastery. In a sacred ceremony in Tibet, he was given the title Terton Rinpoche, "precious jewel." He took to wearing brightly colored silk robes, and visitors to his California homes reported that his staff waited on him hand and foot and always respectfully referred to him as "Rinpoche."

But to his fans around the world, Seagal was a brand-name commodity, and his partner Jules Nasso understood this. Moviegoers were still willing to pay to see Seagal on screen as long as he played the tough-guy hero they had come to love. That's how Nasso was able to put together deals for four new pictures by pre-selling the foreign distribution rights. He just had to convince Seagal not to let his new-found religious beliefs interfere with the tried-and-true Seagal formula.

But Seagal wasn't interested in the old formula. He wanted to stretch as an actor and do different kinds of films.

Half Past Dead video cover
Half Past Dead video cover

His desire to stop making violent films did not alter his pattern of telling unbelievable stories, however. In late 2001, Edeltrud Vorderwuhlbecke, the owner of a luxurious Berlin villa, sought damages from Seagal for wrecking his property, which Seagal had rented during the filming of Half Past Dead. Seagal responded by suing Vorderwuhlbecke and John "Does one through 100," claiming that they were members of the "German Mafia" seeking to extort money from him by way of threats of "severe bodily injury." The lawsuit stated that Seagal had suffered "severe anxiety, emotional distress, humiliation, and mortification" as a result of these threats.

Seagal adopted a similar legal strategy when he was sued by his former partner Jules Nasso in 2002. Nasso, who was left holding the bag with a four-picture deal that Seagal would not honor, sued the star for breach of contract. The price tag: $60 million. Nasso was allegedly connected, not to the "German Mafia," but to the home-grown Italian-American mob, so the born-again Buddhist decided to use the courts to thwart Nasso's suit. Like the one-man armies he'd played in the movies, Seagal was going to take on Nasso and his alleged "nefarious underworld" associates, New York's Gambino family.

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