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Wesley Snipes Was the Best Actor of the Early 1990s

The ‘Major League’ star went on a tear that suggested greatness awaited. Then things got complicated

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

There was no reason to necessarily peg Wesley Snipes as the next big thing. He’d been in a few movies, on Broadway and appeared on Miami Vice when he auditioned in the late 1980s to play Willie Mays Hayes, the cocky outfielder who’d be part of the ensemble in an underdog sports comedy called Major League. Snipes wasn’t even going to be featured on the poster: That was reserved for bigger stars Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen. 

Fact is, it sounds like he was lucky just to get cast in the film — earlier this year, he talked about his audition, which (to his surprise) involved him showing up at a baseball field to demonstrate his athletic talent, even though he’d never really played the game and was wearing a pilot’s suit and boxing shoes. (It’s a long story.) So Snipes had to wing it:

“When I got out to the field, there in the bleachers, in the stands on the field are all the other actors that are auditioning, fully dressed in baseball gear. In their baseball uniforms, fully dressed. … They started falling out because I had no gear, no glove, no shoes, no cleats, nothing. And no experience. So when I finally ran around the bases and tried to turn from second to third and ended up way out in the outfield, because my feet, I had no traction. The cats are falling out in the stands. When I made it back to home plate, literally the producers, the other auditioners, the actors, everybody was laughing their ass off. I had to laugh too because I was like, ‘Hey man, what else can I do? I got no traction. I got boxing shoes on.’ Yeah. Then they took me back to the office and said, ‘Okay, you’re hired.’ Go figure that.”

Hayes wasn’t the main character, but he was the funniest, and Major League was a surprise smash. It’s said so often that the words have lost all meaning, but in Snipes’ case, it was true: You could tell instantly that the then-26-year-old was a star. Even if his character couldn’t hit a lick.

Being in a beloved Gen-X comedy is one thing. But where Snipes went from there was truly impressive. To be honest, I’m not sure if we appreciated it enough at the time. But now, nearly 30 years later, it’s striking just how many good films he was in — and how many good performances he gave in them. That distance allows us to really savor what Snipes achieved in a short amount of time. It wasn’t going to last — and, I’d argue, the drop-off after was fairly precipitous — but no one can ever take away the man’s early-1990s run. He might have been our best actor back then.

Before Major League, his highest-profile gig was in the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” where he played a former friend who challenges our hero’s toughness. The video was directed by Martin Scorsese, and Snipes did his research before auditioning. “I knew that Scorsese and De Niro had a relationship,” he said. “De Niro had done a number of films with Scorsese. I could sense that Scorsese liked a particular tone and style of acting, so I chose to do my audition in that style and tone, and that’s how I think I got the role.”

What made Snipes stand out as a young actor was his combination of gracefulness and edge — that he could seem balletic but also someone you didn’t want to cross. As Eric Newman, the creator of Snipes’ new Netflix drama True Story put it recently, “If you were paying attention back then, you noticed Wesley instantly. Even in supporting parts, like King of New York, you’re like, ‘Who’s that?!’ It was hard to believe there was a guy that handsome who was that good an actor.”

King of New York, which came out a year after Major League, signaled his transition to darker fare. He played a cop trying to stop Christopher Walken’s drug lord, but he changed teams for his first truly fantastic film performance, in 1991’s New Jack City.  Mario Van Peebles’ crime thriller cast him as Nino Brown, a burgeoning drug kingpin determined to rule New York, capitalizing on the spread of crack throughout the Big Apple. A study of racial and economic inequality, New Jack City was as big a deal because of its hit soundtrack, which made new jack swing a dominant musical style. But the ubiquity of “I Wanna Sex You Up” couldn’t overshadow how dynamic Snipes was as Nino. His rage volcanic, his ambition frightening, Nino didn’t just want power — he wanted to destroy, as if he was nursing a grudge against the whole world. “[New Jack City] was supposed to be the Black Godfather,” Snipes once said. “I guess you could say we came close?”

Snipes won an Image Award for New Jack City, but despite being a commercial and (somewhat) critical success, the film didn’t get much award-season attention. This wasn’t totally surprising — New Jack City was more of a smart new-generation Blaxploitation film than your typical “prestige drama” — but it announced Snipes as a formidable leading man. In fact, in his endlessly entertaining and argument-starting book Alternate Oscars, which proposes which films and performances should have won the Academy Award, critic Danny Peary declared that Snipes should have taken Best Actor over The Silence of the LambsAnthony Hopkins

“Snipes gives an intelligently conceived portrait of a character who could very easily have slipped into stereotype,” Peary wrote. “Using equal parts humor, nonchalance, street smarts and intelligence, Snipes makes Nino a familiar figure, an amiable guy you might meet at the playground or hanging out in the neighborhood. … He would like to think that his criminal work is a political act — ‘You’ve got to rob to get rich in the Reagan era!’ — and fancies himself as a Robin Hood when he puts a pittance back into the community. … He is a godfather whose congeniality and charisma cover up the fact that he has become a megalomaniac … who no longer cares for the little people around him, a monster of incredible proportions.”

The shapeshifting continued that same year: Just three months later, he was the upwardly mobile, seemingly content husband Flipper in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. But Flipper’s well-manicured life is set on fire when he falls for Angie (Annabella Sciorra), his new assistant, setting in motion the filmmaker’s exploration of the stigma around interracial romance. Snipes had worked with Lee once before — he’s the hotshot saxophonist who butts heads with Denzel Washington’s band leader in Mo’ Better Blues — and famously declined an offer to be in Do the Right Thing. (The actor chose Major League instead: “A bigger part and a bigger check,” he later said, apparently without a single regret.) But Jungle Fever finally found them collaborating on what would be Snipes’ next major star vehicle. 

Jungle Fever is now often remembered for Samuel L. Jackson’s haunting performance as Flipper’s drug-addict brother — and he’s tremendous in the film — but Snipes got to display a sensitivity and depth he hadn’t shown before. Flipper brings endless trouble down on his head because of his affair, and Snipes walks a tightrope as a man who’s impressed with himself and yet feels that he doesn’t have enough, seeking this relationship because, deep down, he sees dating a white woman as some kind of talisman. Jungle Fever is ultimately about Flipper realizing how he’s tried to transcend systemic inequality and private shames — like his brother’s descent into drugs — and only destroyed himself in the process. It’s an imperfect movie that also tackles sexism and police brutality, but Snipes, as opposed to his magnetic Nino, deftly captures his character’s confusion and self-delusion.

Now a bigger star, Snipes wasn’t afraid to tackle indie projects, like 1992’s The Waterdance, an intimate, touching story about a writer (Eric Stoltz) who suffers paralysis after an accident, befriending Snipes’ Raymond at a rehabilitation center. The film gave Snipes a chance to play a cocksure guy grappling with this newfound feeling of powerlessness, resulting in a gentle performance that, like his best work, contains a dichotomy: Raymond is a big talker, but that bluster is a vain attempt to conceal what scares him about life using a wheelchair. The Waterdance isn’t available for streaming, but it’s endemic of the sort of thoughtful, low-budget American film that was prominent in the 1990s and barely existent anymore.

White Men Can’t Jump was the opposite: a big hit sports comedy, but one that had a little more nuance than Major League. He was Sidney, a typically braggadocious Wesley Snipes character, who rules the pickup basketball courts in Venice, California, until one day he meets Billy (Woody Harrelson), a goofy dude who looks like an easy mark —  except Billy’s actually scamming him, proving to be as good a baller as him. The two team up to hustle other players for money, but off the court Sidney’s the one who has a fairly stable life — at least in comparison to Billy. But as is often the case with Snipes’ roles, Sidney’s outer confidence is in conflict with an inner vulnerability — when you watch his characters, it often seems as if they themselves are playing a role, that of the polished, charming, virile champ. Knowing that, you pick up on the poignancy of how a guy like Sidney is trying his best to keep a facade going — letting the mask slip frightens him so much. The louder he talks, the more you can sense the quiet terror within.

Of course, that was Snipes’ own M.O. in a sense. After all, he made the best of a bad situation during that Major League audition, and the same was true during the filming of White Men Can’t Jump. “I had great handles, great passing, great defense, but every shot I took was a brick,” he said years later. “Every time I shot it, even if it didn’t go in, I talked like it did. I made you believe that you were lucky it didn’t go in.” The film’s writer-director Ron Shelton didn’t disagree: “He walked on the court trash-talking, and it didn’t matter if he had any game. He showed up with more attitude and less jump shot than anybody.”

During that stage of his career, Snipes seemed like he could do anything — romantic drama, sports movie, crime flick, indie character study, buddy comedy. He was an exciting, versatile actor who could bridge the gap between the arthouse and the mainstream. 

And then he went all-in on the mainstream.

A few years earlier than another acclaimed actor’s actor, Nicolas Cage, made a similar leap, Snipes started focusing on action films, beginning with Passenger 57, a sort of Die Hard on a plane. In an interview before the movie came out, Snipes seemed realistic about the kind of popcorn film he was making, but he also believed there was a cultural need to do it. “It’s not like [my character is] just saving a couple of brothers and sisters from the ‘hood,” he said. “You rarely see a Black man with a gun shooting white people for the good of society.” And while you couldn’t argue about the impact that Passenger 57 had as an action movie with a Black star — this was before Will Smith or Denzel Washington were the big draws they soon became — it nonetheless doesn’t diminish the fact that the film wasn’t all that good, and not worthy of his talents.

Undeterred, Snipes kept going that direction. Demolition Man has its fans — and Snipes certainly chews the scenery as Sylvester Stallone’s colorful nemesis — but films like Boiling Point and Rising Sun were simply misfires. There were gutsy projects scattered throughout the rest of the 1990s — To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and One Night Stand (for which he won Best Actor at the Venice Film festival) spring to mind — but those were outnumbered by duds such as Money Train (a dull reunion with Harrelson), The Fan (the one Tony Scott movie nobody raves about), Murder at 1600 (“This address changes all the rules”) and U.S. Marshals (what if they made a Fugitive spinoff?). And like with Cage, his original fans felt a little betrayed by this crass commercial direction, which seemed more about paychecks than the art he used to pursue. 

Snipes, however, didn’t care. “I could do New Jack until I die,” he told the L.A. Times in 1998. “New Jack could be 65 in a wheelchair and still running things. But that’s not going to travel internationally, and it’ll put a limit on how long I have a career.” As far as he was concerned, now was the time to strike when older action stars, like Stallone, were aging out of the genre. “There are only two cats who can do it,” he figured. “That’s me and Mel Gibson. And Kurt Russell can still do it. I think they have a few more years in them.”

That interview was on the set of Blade, an action movie that would finally give Snipes the sort of hit that could launch a franchise. He’d studied martial arts for years, but the comic-book adaptation finally allowed him to really show off those skills. Blade arrived at a fallow period in superhero cinema — this was the time of Batman & Robin — but Snipes bet on his vampire vigilante, getting a trilogy in the process. Nobody would confuse the character for Nino Brown or Jungle Fever’s Flipper — there was none of the old depth or vulnerability — but Snipes was especially good at conveying badass nonchalance, which was all that was required.

You know what happened next. “I don’t see myself as an innocent bystander in any of it,” Snipes said in 2020, referring to the two-and-a-half years he spent in prison for tax evasion in the early 2010s. “I made decisions. I accept the ramifications of those decisions. No one forced me to take that person as my accountant; no one forced me to take that person as my lawyer. No one forced me to believe what they were saying. That was on me. I don’t have time to sit back and say I was wronged and recapture all that was lost.” 

Even at the time, his jail stint seemed egregious. (Heaven knows other figures in the public eye dealt with similar IRS woes but didn’t have to do hard time.) But the failure to pay taxes, combined with his career descending into straight-to-video hell, profoundly tarnished his stature. Where had the Wesley Snipes of the early 1990s gone? (“It’s the David Hasselhoff school of business acting,” Snipes joked recently about movies you’ve never heard of like Hard Luck and The Marksman. “It’s really trippy because I was making substantial money, so it made a lot of business sense to me.”)

Now out of prison, Snipes has begun rebuilding his career. He reunited with Lee for Chi-Raq and teamed up with Eddie Murphy for Dolemite Is My Name and Coming 2 America. He got back together with Stallone for The Expendables 3. He spoofed his Blade fame by appearing on What We Do in the Shadows. And now he’s doing True Story with Kevin Hart, a drama series. 

Profiles written about Snipes usually take on the tenor of a redemption story — how good it is to have him back, how he’s older and wiser now, how he wants to hit the refresh button. “It’s an interesting Wesley Snipes journey, I must say,” he told Entertainment Weekly last month. “I enjoy me. I enjoy the discovery of my potential, my strengths, my weaknesses. And looking back on the things that I’ve accomplished, I’ve grown to appreciate assessing it from another perspective. Like, ‘I guess it ain’t so bad, boy!’ It’s been a kaleidoscope of experiences.”

His career is a tantalizing what-if story. What if he’d resisted the urge to make blockbusters? Or, what if one of them had ended up being Black Panther, a project he chased for years before settling on Blade? (“I think Black Panther spoke to me because he was noble, and he was the antithesis of the stereotypes presented and portrayed about Africans, African history and the great kingdoms of Africa,” Snipes said in 2018. “It had cultural significance, social significance. It was something that the Black community and the white community hadn’t seen before.”) Also, what if the industry had been more receptive to Black-themed stories when Snipes’ star was ascendant? 

If any of those realities had been different, maybe Snipes would be one of his generation’s most decorated actors — as opposed to one seeking a comeback that lots of us are rooting for.

Probably in 2023, we’ll get a new Blade with Mahershala Ali taking over the title role. A New Jack City reboot is apparently also in the works. There was talk of a new iteration of White Men Can’t Jump. And Charlie Sheen has wanted to make a Major League 4 for a while. Snipes’ past is still very much our present. (As of now, he’s not officially tied to any of those projects.) But nothing will be able to replace that young, hungry energy he brought to movies in the early 1990s, that balance of swagger and gravitas that felt like lightning. You thought his characters were going to take over the world. That didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen for Snipes, either. 

But don’t put it past him. During the making of Passenger 57, his grandmother recalled Snipes as a boy. “When he was a year and a half old,” she said, “he kicked the door and yelled, ‘Open the damn door!’” 

At his peak, Snipes could blow those doors down.