A master of several Japanese martial arts, Steven Seagal is a popular action movie hero whose films combine spiritual concepts and social/environmental consciousness with high-voltage violence. Born in Lansing, MI, on April 10, 1951, Seagal traveled to Japan at the age of 17. There, he taught English, studied Zen, and perfected his martial arts, earning black belts in Aikido, karate, judo, and kendo. Afterwards, he became the first Westerner to open a martial arts school in Japan.
During this time, Seagal occasionally choreographed fight scenes in movies and coached such stars as Sean Connery and Toshiro Mifune. He also became interested in Eastern religion: in a November 1997 interview for the Shambala Sun, he stated that his relationship with Tibetan Buddhism resulted from his study of acupuncture. According to Seagal, several ailing Tibetan lamas, suffering from malnutrition, exhaustion, and the effects of Chinese torture, were sent to him for treatment, which led him to become a director of secret security operations and setting up special safe houses. Regarding other incidents from his past, Seagal has remained secretive, though he was allegedly a bounty hunter and occasionally has hinted about involvement with the CIA. Further speculation has surrounded the work he did on behalf of Tibetan freedom fighters, and it was not until 1997 that he mentioned the large amounts of money he claimed to have donated to various religious organizations.
Seagal spent about 15 years in Asia before returning to the States, where he opened a new martial arts academy and also worked as a celebrity bodyguard. His clients included his future (now ex-) wife Kelly LeBrock and Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz. With help from Ovitz, Seagal contracted to make martial arts films for Warner Bros. For his first film, he and cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Davis carefully refashioned an average police drama into Above the Law (1988), which stressed characterization and plot as well as high-energy action scenes. It was well received and Seagal found himself an instant star among action aficionados. His next film, Hard to Kill (1989), overflowed with chop-socky violence, casting him as a cop who wakens from a coma and sets out for revenge against those who sent him to the hospital. Seagal attracted mainstream appeal in 1992 when he starred in the Davis-directed hit Under Siege, his most popular movie. In 1994, he made his directorial debut with the environmentally conscious but critically panned On Deadly Ground, in which he single-handedly attempts to save Alaska and the Eskimos from an avaricious oil tycoon. Subsequent action attempts included 1996's Executive Decision and 1998's The Patriot. In 1999, Seagal turned to producing with Prince of Central Park, an uncharacteristically gentle film about a young boy living in the titular park. Following a rollicking time in the corrupt cop thriller Exit Wounds (2001), Segal shook things up behind bars in Half Past Dead (2002). The coming years would find Segal continuing to star in low proifle action fare like Urban Justice and Flight of Fury. He'd also find success starring on the TV series True Justice.
In 1997, Seagal publicly announced that one of his prime Buddhist teachers, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, had proclaimed him a tulku, the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama. Seagal's announcement met with some cynicism, but Penor Rinpoche backed him up with a formal statement at Colorado's Naropa Institute. In subsequent interviews, Seagal has presented himself as a serious student of Buddhism who spends many hours meditating, studying, and practicing the tenets to help him become a teacher and healer.