Ten years ago, it was hard to be a bigger star than Wesley Snipes was. The Bronx-bred actor with the brooding good looks and the menacing physicality to back them up was routinely earning between $7 and $10 million per film. He was costarring with A-list actors like Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. And his movies were making money hand over fist. New Jack City. Jungle Fever. White Men Can't Jump. Passenger 57. Rising Sun. Waiting to Exhale. By the time he donned a black leather coat and dark sunglasses to play a half-human, half-vampire avenger in 1998's Blade, Snipes wasn't just one of the most popular African-American actors in Hollywood; he was fast becoming one of its biggest stars, period.
Since then, things haven't gone quite as one might have predicted. Over the past few years, Snipes' films have been shot on the cheap in places like Bulgaria, Romania, and Namibia. They've featured interchangeable titles like The Contractor and The Detonator and costars who are B- or C-list talents at best. The onetime power-list staple's paydays have taken a nosedive too, sometimes sinking to around $2 million per film. And the last five movies he's released have bypassed theaters altogether and gone directly to DVD.
The better question might be: What didn't happen? For much of the past decade, Snipes has been mired in one legal scandal and publicity nightmare after another. Some of these were due to bad luck. Others seem to have been the result of bad judgment. And yet others, like the federal tax-fraud indictment Snipes currently faces, are so convoluted and downright bizarre that it's hard to figure out who's to blame.
Snipes has remained silent through it all. He's sat by as his reputation has taken devastating hits and offers from the major Hollywood studios have dried up. He's allowed other people to unspool the strange details of his once charmed life in the press. And considering his silence, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that maybe those rumors and accusations against him were true.
But on a wintry morning last month at his home in suburban New Jersey, Snipes finally agreed to talk. The only question is whether it's too late. After all, Snipes' career isn't the only thing that's in jeopardy. His freedom is too. Because next month, Snipes will stand before a jury that may convict him and send him to prison for 16 years.
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