Actors Wesley Snipes is still a few weeks away from becoming a free man. Still, the 50-year-old one-time star can spend his last days on house arrest secure in the knowledge that he’ll have at least one job waiting for him when he returns to Tinseltown.
Lionsgate Films announced earlier this week that Snipes is set to appear in the third installment of his good friend Sly Stallone’s franchise film series The Expendables. The movie centers on a group of older action heroes solving crimes together and will also star Jackie Chan and Nicolas Cage.
A paying gig is exactly what Snipes needs as he attempts to revive his career after serving nearly two years in jail for tax evasion. He was released into house arrest in New York in April.
Still, while Snipes’s first few months of freedom will find him gainfully employed, many in Hollywood say they see little chance of the actor regaining the top billing he once enjoyed. The reasons, they say, have less to do with time served than with an immensely talented actor too consumed by ego and pride to get out of his own way.
In his early career, the obstacles were different. Dolores Robinson, Snipes’s one-time manager, recalls being told several times by Hollywood bigwigs that Snipes was just too dark for major lead roles. They’d add that Denzel Washington’s brown skin tone was as about as dark as they were willing to go. “The powers that be weren’t shy about letting their true feelings be known,’’ said Robinson.
But the former Black Muslim and martial-arts expert wouldn’t take no for an answer. After getting his start appearing as a street thug in the 1987 Michael Jackson video “Bad,” the Bronx-born Snipes would go on to star in Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and White Men Can’t Jump. His frighteningly charming performance as the dangerous New York drug dealer Nino Brown in the film New Jack City’ would cement his status as a true Hollywood star.
“I always enjoyed watching Wesley on screen from the beginning of his career,’’ says noted film historian and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts film professor Donald Bogle. “He had a different look from the traditional leading man in Hollywood and a confidence that you could feel … You couldn’t take your eyes off him in [New Jack City],’’ remembers Bogle. “He was a bona fide star.’’
But while Snipes handled the pressures of stardom with style, he rarely did it with grace, say some. Friends say as his success and stature grew, so did his attitude and arrogance.
“I think a lot of us knew pretty early that Wes’s ego would be his downfall,” said a former employee of Snipes. “I mean he fired his manager as soon as he hit it big. A black woman who’d fought hard to get him everything and he dropped her the minute it got really good.” That woman was Dolores Robinson, a well-respected Hollywood manager whose client roster over the years included Martin Sheen, Rosie Perez, and Emilio Estevez.
The negative publicity from Snipes’s firing of Robinson did little to dampen his career. Instead, it was arguably his turn in the 1997 romantic film One Night Stand that dramatically altered his reputation inside and outside the community. By then, Snipes was by then known to be dating only Asian women in his real life, a fact that didn’t sit well with his largely African-American female base. His handlers worried that a film featuring him involved with two non-African American women—Nastassja Kinski and Ming Na—was sure to cause more backlash in the black community.
In an effort to offset that backlash, Snipes’s handlers arranged an interview with Ebony magazine. It didn’t work. In a wide-ranging interview, Snipes bluntly explained his romantic choices, repeating negative stereotypes of black women and harshly comparing them to women of other races. As soon as the article hit newsstands, Snipes began receiving hate mail and death threats. One Night Stand flopped.
“I remember reading that article and my mouth being open the entire time,’’ said Glennis Houston, a friend from Snipes’s childhood in the Bronx. “He grew up with a black mother, a black grandmother, and was a Black Muslim. But somehow you don’t like black women? Before that article I saw every movie he was in. Haven’t seen a film of his since.”
The next eruption of Snipes’s ego came after his most successful film, Blade, in which he portrayed a human-vampire hybrid character out of Marvel comics. As the film’s third installment was being made, Snipes’s trademark attitude and arrogance took center stage. Former employees of Snipes say the star believed that the mere fact that he’d brought the character of “Blade” to life was enough to allow him say-so on every aspect of the entire production. By the time Blade Trinity was set to go into production, New Line Cinema (the film’s primary production company) had effectively frozen him out of all decision-making, according to a former Snipes staff member who worked closely on the production.
“He’d been difficult throughout the filming of all the movies. That’s who he is,” said a former employee of Snipes’s production company Amen-Ra, which was also involved in producing the film. “New Line Cinema put up with a lot of mess from him before deciding he wasn’t worth the trouble no matter how much the movie made at the box office.’’ Snipes became further incensed when he learned that Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel had been hired to co-star in the film. He saw the placement of two young white actors as an effort by New Line to force him out of the profitable series. He also complained that the script for Blade Trinity was poorly written. Once filming began in late 2003, he barely came out of his trailer. All of this is spelled out in a lawsuit (later settled) that Snipes would eventually file against New Line, as well as in his five-page letter.
“Wesley would only come out to the set for close-ups,” remembers his co-star Patton Oswalt. “The rest of his scenes were done by his stand-in.” Oswalt added that Snipes so despised David Goyer, the writer and director of Blade: Trinity, that he would only communicate with him via Post-it notes that he would sign with the name “Blade.”
After filming ended, Snipes took pen to paper and wrote the founder of New Line Cinema, Bob Shaye, a five-page letter complaining about his treatment. Shaye responded by releasing sections of the rant to various media outlets. Snipes sued New Line for failing to pay his full salary and for using his name to promote a spin-off film for other actors; Like One Night Stand, Blade: Trinity flopped.
“He shot himself in the foot big time with that letter,’’ said a former Snipes employee. “The Hollywood machine works a certain way and no one actor is going to change that. From that point on Wesley could only really make independent films and straight-to-video films for the most part.”
Snipes would also soon come face to face with more serious problems than his waning career. Just a year after the final Blade was released, Snipes was charged with conspiracy to defraud the government and six counts of willfully failing to file federal income tax returns His fight back against the federal government, which he lost, would dominate the next four years of his life, and lawyers and friends familiar with the case say his prison term could have been avoided had Snipes simply moved out of his own way.
“Wesley had good legal representation when these charges came out but he wouldn’t listen,’’ said a long-time friend of the actor. “Nobody understands a rich black man not paying his taxes so you’re not going to win that. But Wesley had to fight it and in the end the conspiracy charge was dropped but he still got major time.’’
Snipes will return to a slightly different Hollywood than he left in 2010. The Wire star Idris Elba now claims the type of roles Snipes once enjoyed. “There is a young audience of moviegoers who don’t know who Wesley Snipes is,’’ said Bogle. “He’ll face that problem and the limited amount of roles out there for men his age and color. He’ll need to somehow transition into more of a character actor at this point, which can be difficult to do. Expendables 3 is really the best thing he could hope for because the film is not on his shoulders.”
Several close to the actor at one time or another say they expect his long-time good friends Stallone and director Spike Lee to rally around the actor as he attempts to regain his footing in Hollywood.
“I’m sure those guys will look out for him when they can,’’ said a former Snipes employee. “Not sure anyone else will.”