stunt man returns

Lenny Seward worked as a stunt man before moving to Las Vegas to pursue a career as a singer. (Courtesy of Lenny Seward / July 20, 2011)

A show-business chameleon, Lenny Seward has worked as a Hollywood stunt man, Las Vegas lounge singer and private acting coach.

These days, he's returned to his hometown of Newport News to take what might be his toughest gig yet.

He's helping to look after his ailing mother.

Understanding his mom's health issues, he left Las Vegas in April to lend a hand where he could. His timing couldn't have been better. Earlier this month, she underwent open-heart surgery.

"The way I see it, she's my mother," said Seward, a versatile 57-year-old veteran of screen and stage. "There's nothing else more important than that. I have to do what I have to do to make the situation better for her."

In between looking after his mother's affairs, Seward said he hopes to find work locally as an acting teacher.

While he's sure he made the right decision, he admits that leaving Vegas was difficult.

"Yeah, I had a lot of mixed emotions," Seward said. "Over 15 years there, you know, you become a part of a family. Even though you may not see people every day, it's knowing that you are part of a community. Kind of letting that go, that's kind of a difficult thing to do.

"On the other hand, I can't dwell on that past, I have to look to the future."

His past, though, is anything but typical.

While a student at Warwick High School, he sang in bands including Ship of Fools and Sounds of Country. By the late 1970s, he'd relocated to Hollywood where he hoped to break into the movies as an actor. Learning to do stunts helped him get in the door. His resume says he worked as a stunt man on films including "1941" with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and "Reds" starringWarren Beatty.

With some success under his belt, Seward — who acted under the stage name Lee Stewart — returned to Virginia in 1984 and created the East Coast Stunt Team. He started teaching aspiring young actors how to fall from tall buildings and light themselves on fire … safely.

Seward was frequently featured in local newspaper articles from that era. A combination of methodical attention for detail and knack for theatrics made him good copy.

"We're not daredevils," he told the Daily Press in 1989. "We practice self-discipline, concentration, planning. We're not out on a limb."

Mark Curtis of Virginia Beach worked closely with Seward in those days. Curtis did video production and the two men collaborated on safety films made by Coastal Video Communications. He describes him as anything but wild and reckless.

"I always found him to be a very honest person," said Curtis, who currently handles maintenance for Cinema Café locations and does some video on the side. "In the film business, if you find someone like that, you really have found a friend. That's the highest and best praise I could give him. He was very focused and really tried to make acting his life."

In 1996, as stunt jobs and teaching assignments in Virginia started to fade, Seward decided to head west once again, this time to Las Vegas. There, he re-invented himself as a lounge singer. It was a gutsy move. Seward said he knew no one there who could help him get started.

Why did he pick Vegas?

"At that point in time, Vegas, in reality, was the entertainment capital of the world," Seward said. "You had all kinds of opportunities. There were lounges, a ton of stuff going on out there. With the music thing being in my blood, I figured, why not give it a shot? … I threw my hat in the ring and went out and did it. It's basically that simple."

Singing under the stage name Lee Michaels, he worked up an act that featured tunes made famous by Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls and Neil Diamond. He sang at off-strip lounges and casinos such as Mount Charleston and the Nevada Landing.