In the old days, the career path for a certain brand of celebrity, the kind who is more than a flash in the pan but less than a national treasure, had these three steps:
Be a big star for a while.
Spend a few years on "Hollywood Squares."
Fade to obscurity.
Trouble was, there are only nine Hollywood Squares, which left a lot of celebrities with no decent second act after their fame had peaked. Then reality television was invented, opening seemingly unlimited opportunities to follow a slight variation in the traditional path:
Be a big star for a while.
Embarrass yourself on a reality TV show.
Fade to obscurity.
But there might be a more respectable alternative, one in which a celebrity can do something other than make fun of his own irrelevance. In separate shows being introduced this week Steven Seagal and Jesse Ventura hope to blaze that trail.
Seagal, who merged his martial-arts background with a nebulous acting style to become a steady box office draw in violent films like "Hard to Kill" (1990) and "Under Siege" (1992), lets us in on his under-the-radar second job in "Steven Seagal: Lawman," a reality show coming to A&E on Wednesday. It's a basic ride-along cop show, but one of the cops is Seagal, who, it turns out, has been a reserve deputy in Jefferson Parish, La., for about 20 years.
And Ventura, who with stints as a Navy Seal, professional wrestler and governor of Minnesota may already have the most eclectic resume in America, tries on an investigative hat (of sorts) in "Conspiracy Theory," a show arriving the same day on TruTV, in which he seeks the truth about secretive government programs, what "really" happened on 9/11 and more.
The two programs are a decided departure from the established reality-show-with-celebrity formula, in which past-their-prime stars like Ozzy Osbourne ("The Osbournes," MTV), Charo ("The Surreal Life," WB and VH1) and Dennis Rodman ("The Celebrity Apprentice," NBC) either do nothing in particular or participate in a contrived competition. Both Seagal and Ventura certainly take their new shows more seriously than previous reality TV celebrities have taken theirs, yet they are hardly going in the same direction. Seagal, in his police officer persona, comes across as more or less the opposite of his head-busting tough guy. Ventura seems in "Conspiracy Theory" to be eager to make his already outsize personality even bigger and brasher.
Seagal, 57, has in recent years been turning out mostly straight-to-video work but may be due for a resurgence with the release next year of "Machete," a star-studded film directed by Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City," "Spy Kids") and Ethan Maniquis. In a telephone interview from Romania, where he was filming what he called "an Interpol fugitive-apprehension kind of deal," he said that he began working with the Jefferson Parish department, which covers most of the suburbs of New Orleans, after asking to meet its colorful sheriff, Harry Lee. He impressed Lee with his marksmanship, and that led the sheriff, who died in 2007, to invite him to share his shooting techniques with his officers. At the session's end Lee offered him a job as a fully sworn reserve deputy.
"I said, 'Well, what would you like me to do?"' Seagal said. "And he said, 'Well, when you're down here, I'd like you to be a cop, go out on patrol, arrest the bad guys and help the good guys."'
"When Steven Seagal puts on a uniform and wears the badge of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department, it's real police work," said Col. John N. Fortunato, the sheriff's department's public information officer. "He's no different from any of the rest of us."
Not that people don't recognize Seagal; sometimes they'll even ask for autographs in the middle of a police investigation. But this Steven Seagal is not the guy who in the movies is dropping miscreants with martial-arts moves. On the program the soft-spoken Seagal comes across as a peacemaker, telling people to calm down and move along.
If Seagal takes his police job (which is unpaid) very seriously, Ventura, 58, makes "Conspiracy Theory" an adventure in gonzo-ism. Each episode looks into a phenomenon or event around which wild speculation has grown, with Ventura taking a confrontational approach to getting answers that often results in slammed doors and "No comment."
"This is a passion that I've had for many, many years, conspiracies," Ventura said by phone, tracing the fascination back to hearing the author Mark Lane speak about John F. Kennedy's assassination. Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy write exciting novels, he said, but that's mere imagination. "I find going after conspiracies to be even more of a challenge and more intriguing, because these are real-life people you can go talk to and learn about things, and there is also quite the possibility that it may be true."
Being Minnesota governor for four years - he did not seek re-election when his term ended in 2003 - didn't exactly turn him into an apologist for elected officials. "The thing that I want to drive home on this more than anything is the fact that you're not allowed to question our government," he said. "In our world today you have to accept what the government tells you, and if you question it, the government will not answer you. They won't even provide anyone to talk to you."
So are Seagal and Ventura, despite different approaches, leading a trend? Rob Sharenow, senior vice president for programming at A&E, said his network likes the idea of this type of reality show (or "real life" TV, as he calls it).
"There is a whole class of celebrity reality shows where they literally cast peole," he said, "where they just gather a bunch of celebrities who are looking to participate in a reality show. The things that we're drawn to are about real people who are doing something extraordinary or who are extraordinary people who are going to expose their lives for a reason."
The network, he said, is now filming a show in which Tony Danza, following a longstanding interest, is serving as a teacher in a public high school in Philadelphia, and also plans a show focused on Kirstie Alley and her real-life struggles to control her weight (as opposed to the fictional "Fat Actress," in which she starred on Showtime).
With those shows and Seagal's, he said, the key is to match a celebrity and a subject he or she knows firsthand. Not just any celebrity will do, though many, many come calling.
"A lot of well-known people approach us all the time with shows they want to do," said Darren Campo, senior vice president for programming, production and development at TruTV, "but a lot of times they're not really qualified to do the show." His viewers, he said, are interested in "an expertise that can take them somewhere they're not familiar with."