What the Hell Happened to Wesley Snipes?
At the top of his career, Wesley Snipes was an A-list action star who could also cross-over into comedy and drama as he saw fit. Few actors can claim the kind of cross-genre success Snipes enjoyed. But all that ended amid very public legal entanglements that ultimately landed Snipes in jail with a three-year sentence for failing to file tax returns.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: No matter what anyone else tells you, you still need to file your taxes.
Snipes made his screen debut opposite future co-star Woody Harrelson in the 1986 Goldie Hawn football comedy, Wildcats. Amazingly, Wildcats was also Harrelson’s big screen debut. Years later, the two would reunite as box office stars for two more films. But here, they were both unkowns.
Wildcats is your typical Goldie Hawn comedy following the formula that was successful with Private Benjamin to lesser results. Instead of the army, Wildacts finds plucky Hawn as the unlikely coach of an inner city high school football team.
Snipes and Harrelson became friends while filming Wildcats:
Most of the cats in Wildcats were black. Woody was only supposed to be in the movie early on, but Goldie liked him and he ended up with more and more scenes. We thought it was white favoritism. One of the football players, a Muslim from the Nation in Chicago, would whip on Woody every day. Woody couldn’t take it and came to me, “Look, man, what is all this black shit? Why’s he saying I’m the Devil? Do you think I’m the Devil?” We ended up with a friendship from that.
No one expects a movie like Wildcats to be good. And it wasn’t. It was the kind of bland, harmless comedy Hawn was known for in those days. As Roger Ebert noted in his review:
Wildcats is clearly an attempt by Hawn to repeat a formula that was wonderfully successful in Private Benjamin: Wide-eyed Goldie copes with the real world. It was less successful in Protocol, and now it’s worn out altogether.
Wildcats opened in fourth place at the box office behind The Delta Force proving that even with the assistance of Snipes and Harrelson, Hawn was no match for Chuck Norris.
Later that year, Snipes followed up Wildcats with another sports movie.
Klaus Maria Brandauer starred as a Russian immigrant who was denied the opportunity to join the Soviet national boxing team because he was Jewish. When he comes to the US, he ends up coaching boxers played by Snipes and Adrian Pasdar.
At the time of the movie’s release, Brandauer was the star. But later video releases would emphasize Snipes’ supporting role.
Critics complained that Streets of Gold was overly formulaic. Roger Ebert lamented that the movie ultimately fell into the Rocky trap:
Streets of Gold is a movie that begins with a story that’s genuinely interesting. But then it gradually loses confidence and starts to depend on clichés, and by the last 20 minutes it’s on automatic pilot. Too bad, because this could have been a good one.
The boxing drama opened in ninth place at the box office behind Stand By Me which had been in theaters for 15 weeks by that point. It barely edged out Top Gun which had been playing for more than six months!
Meanwhile (yes, we are still in 1986!) Snipes was also paying his dues on TV. Most notably, he played a pimp on the 80’s TV sensation, Miami Vice. Bill Paxton also appeared in the episode as a cop who falls in love with one of Snipes’ working girls.
Around this time, Snipes was also in consideration for the role of Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Proving that sometimes things work out for the best, the role ultimately went to LeVar Burton.
In 1986, we all had a bad case of the blues – the 501 blues that is! Snipes had contracted a worse case than most. His love of Levi’s blue jeans had him dancing down the street and losing his hat in this 1986 commercial.
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