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The Putin-Seagal bromance: The backstory

Bob Van Ronkel, second from left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and action star Steven Seagal. (Courtesy of Bob Van Ronkel)

Bob Van Ronkel talks the classic Hollywood insider gab.

The words blowing by at a fast clip, his sentences hop along on gilded proper nouns: A-list celebrities, members of the rock-and-roll pantheon, the agents and execs controlling the industry’s marionette strings. And like any fixer worth his reputation, he’s got a hefty stack of photos from his years in the game to back up his name-dropping. Van Ronkel with Jack Nicholson. Van Ronkel with Pamela Anderson. Van Ronkel with Hilary Swank. Van Ronkel with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Van Ronkel’s career has been anything but typical. Since the early 2000s, he’s been a conduit between Hollywood and Moscow, setting up American celebrities and musicians with Russian power brokers. Most famously, he helped hook up action star Steven Seagal and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a relationship that was suddenly back in the news this week after the Kremlin announced Seagal had been named a special envoy to the United States.

While living in Moscow for 15 years, Van Ronkel told The Washington Post he filled many roles, planning movie festivals, organizing Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s son’s birthday party, even working with megastars like Mariah Carey and Katy Perry and oligarchs.

“I don’t know anybody who’s done what I’ve done over there,” he told The Washington Post this week. “I never learned more than a hundred words of Russian, but I did more than 300 deals.”

Van Ronkel has been courtside for many surreal mash-ups between Russian power and American pop culture. He sat a few seats away from Donald Trump at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. He helped facilitate a 2010 charity event in St. Petersburg where Putin himself serenaded a room of Hollywood stars like Kevin Costner and Sharon Stone with a rendition of “Blueberry Hill.” (See the hilarious video below.)

Standing at the intersection of all that cross-cultural traffic makes Van Ronkel uniquely positioned to understand both countries, particularly now as geopolitical knives are being sharpened in the wake of the 2016 election interference.

“I’m not a political guy, I’m a deal guy. I’m a people guy. Politically, we’re creaming Russia right now, but we don’t see or understand the other side,” he said. “The Russian people love Americans. They love American music. They’ve grown up on American movies.”

It’s been an unlikely journey for Van Ronkel, who grew up in Beverly Hills, orbiting wealth and fame but on the outskirts. His mother and father divorced before he was born. A tiny $200-a-month apartment was home. The family’s lot improved some when his mother remarried but only for a time.

“I’m just the son that comes with the woman the wealthy guy married,” he said. “It lasted a few years, and then we’re back to the little apartment.”

Van Ronkel never went to college but hopped from venture to venture: clothing, restaurants, real estate and, eventually, the movies.

“I was probably in, like, 30 to 40 businesses,” he said. “I knew how to kick off a business by talking and promoting. But I never knew how to run them afterward, so they all failed.”

By the late 1990s, Van Ronkel owned a restaurant and had a producing credit on a small feature film. Through acquaintances, he got involved in a business plan to build multiplex cinemas in Moscow. Working the phones and his relationships, he set up meetings between American studio executives and the city’s government. The deal eventually died, but Van Ronkel’s name began circulating in Russia.

In 1998, he escorted Academy Award winner Martin Landau to Russia for the Moscow International Film Festival. The next year he became officially affiliated with the event, shepherding American actors like Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Jack Nicholson and Lara Flynn Boyle to the festival.

For Van Ronkel and Russia — it wasn’t love at first sight. On his initial visit, Moscow was cold and gray, he recalled, a complete contrast from the sunny Southern California he knew. One night, he trucked out to Red Square, standing in the middle of the empty seat of Soviet power. He recalled growing up, watching news footage of Russia military parades stomping through the very same spot where he was now standing. “I had these visions of how my parents were scared to death of the tanks going through Red Square, saying we had to fear them.”

But he saw the opportunity in a country still making the shaky transition from “evil empire” to global player. Van Ronkel eventually moved to Moscow full time to act as a facilitator hooking celebs with Russian parties and events. He started a company, “Doors to Russia,” as a pipeline between the two worlds.

“I realized no one is going to pay me in L.A. to do this,” he said. “It was the first time I was getting big money for easy stuff — networking.”

The calls kept coming.

Picture Van Ronkel, sitting in meetings with Russia’s rich and powerful, 80 percent of the conversation spinning over his head but still able to deliver on the deals through the blunt force of personality. “At one time I might have had 150 words down,” he said. “I maybe knew how to order anything in a restaurant or get girls to come home with me from the clubs.”

He eventually worked out deals to bring numerous celebrities to Russia and other former Soviet nations, including Jim Carrey, John Malkovich, Val Kilmer, Kiss, Kanye West, Bryan Ferry, Jon Voight, Dolph Lundgren, Billy Zane, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Alice Cooper and Mickey Rourke.

“I’m just this kid from Beverly Hills High School who shouldn’t even be there,” he said. “In 2002, I didn’t know any actors or bands, and suddenly I’m bringing Steven Tyler and Katy Perry.”

The relationship between Russian elites and American celebrities may have reached its bizarre apex in December 2010.

According to Van Ronkel, he arranged for Kevin Costner and his band Modern West to play a private charity event in St. Petersburg. At the concert, Putin himself sat down at a grand piano on the stage. After tentatively tapping out the notes to Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” like a nervous student at a recital, the then-prime minister grabbed the mic and crooned the tune with backup singers and a full band. Costner, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Monica Bellucci and Sharon Stone all clapped along.

The romance between Russian rainmakers and American celebrities came naturally, Van Ronkel explained. After the Iron Curtain toppled, a whole generation of Russians binged Western culture — particularly the blockbuster actions films of the 1980s and 1990s. Explosions and helicopter kicks are a universal language.

“Those Hollywood movies — you don’t have to speak English to understand it. It’s about the action. You love the fight scenes,” Van Ronkel said. “A comedy, if you don’t understand English, it doesn’t translate. Action is action.”

The stars of those films — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren — remain incredibly popular in Russia. It’s also why the country has offered Steven Seagal a second act as a celebrity.

Seagal has family ties to Russia. Not long after the Putin performance, Van Ronkel said he was asked to get the “Under Siege” star and musician to perform at a similar charity event in Russia. Later at an after-party, Seagal met Putin. Both avid martial artists, the two became fast friends. In November 2016, Putin gave Seagal a Russian passport.

The action star — who has been accused of sexual harassment in the past and denies the allegations — has become a vocal advocate for the Russian president. Seagal once referred to Putin as “one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader, alive today.” His geopolitical bromance with Putin is only part of the attraction to the country, Van Ronkel estimated.

“His career peaked here, but he’s not doing the $30- to $60-million movies he once was,” Van Ronkel said. “Russia is a place to re-brand himself.”

Seagal’s new special envoy status could help bridge the divide between the two governments, he said. “Putin is a good judge of character. He feels there’s something Steven can do. I don’t see what Steven could do to hurt the relationship.”

After 15 years in Russia, Van Ronkel and his Russian-born wife are back in the States. He’s still facilitating relationships between celebrities and Russia, but thanks to sanctions and politics, the money isn’t flowing as in his heyday. In the meantime, Van Ronkel has projects in development, he said, including a series based on his own life overseas.

“My story, it’s like ‘Entourage’ in Russia,” he said. “Girls, money, drugs, actors and bands.”

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