Chuck Norris uses martial arts and profits from his Lone Wolf cigars to help steer kids straight.
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"After I did Good Guys Wear Black, the critics said it was the worst acting in the history of moviemaking. But people went to see that movie, and I think it was because the lead character was a strong, positive, heroic role model. A guy who was pretty much in the same category as 'Walker.' A guy who fights against whatever injustices there may be and uses his abilities as a martial artist to do it. My concepts haven't changed much over the years. But we must be doing something right, because every week about a billion people around the world are watching 'Walker, Texas Ranger.'"
Even with a grueling 10-month production schedule, Norris feels that he has found his niche on television because of the creative flexibility his success has afforded him. "I like TV because I can do things that I couldn't necessarily do on film. I can tell stories that I wouldn't be able to make a movie about, like spousal abuse or other important issues. I couldn't create a whole movie about these issues, but I can do it on a weekly series, and I like that. We try and keep the episodes topical and interesting. I also like the pace of television. I'm a fast-paced type of guy, so making a television series blends well with my energy level." This November, Norris is starring in a made-for-television movie on CBS, which he is also producing, called Hit Man: Bound by Honor. He plays a Vietnam War hero whose nephew tries to avenge the Mafia slayings of his parents and sister during his youth.
With all the star perks, Norris is basically a "down home" guy. Unfailingly nice to his crew, generous and cordial to his fans, Norris maintains a level head about his accomplishments. "Success in show business is misleading," he says. "You can be here today and gone tomorrow. One day they want to see you, the next day they could care less. That's the way it is. You never know when that day is gonna come when people say, 'I've seen all I want to see of that guy.'"
But that day holds little fear for Norris. "I started later in life. I was 36 before I got into the film business and at that time I had already achieved a modicum of success in the martial arts world. So when I went into films I was already pretty centered. Understanding the philosophy of life means that success can be very fleeting and you just do the best you can. Work as hard as you can and just see what happens with all that. If it's successful, great. If it's not, move on. I've never really let the pressure get to me."
While Norris's career successes have mounted, he has had his share of difficulties in his personal life. He and Dianne divorced in 1989 after 30 years of marriage and three children: Michael, now 35, Dina, 34, and Eric, 32. They are also the proud grandparents of five grandchildren.
"Our kids grew up and my wife and I started going in different directions. She started her career and doing her thing and I was going my way," Norris says, pausing and growing introspective. "It seems like every five years in a marriage you have to readjust. If you can't make that readjustment then it's not going to last, and I found that to be true in my marriage. Seemed like every five years, Dianne and I had to kind of regroup and rearrange our relationship--and we did it for 30 years. Unfortunately, that last five-year period, it just didn't work out; but we're still friends. It was tough to leave someone that is such a big part of your life, who is extremely instrumental in your success. I would never have been as successful as I am today without Dianne."
His busy schedule and the pressures of celebrity continue to exact a cost. "My last relationship dissolved because I didn't have enough of a private life and she couldn't have enough of a private life, and she couldn't deal with only sharing a small part of my life. At this point in my life, I have a lot of things that I want to accomplish, and to accomplish them takes a lot of time," Norris says, but he adds, "I like companionship. I don't really like being alone or coming home to an empty house."
At 58, Norris is comfortable with the idea of growing older. "Sometimes I can see myself as an 85-year-old man with a walker, yelling 'Halt!' The thing for me is that age is in the mind. I don't feel old. I feel like I'm still a kid. I can kick as well as I've ever been able to kick. And I can still do everything I did when I was a fighter. And to be truthful, I think I look better now than I did when I was in my 30s. Maybe it's because I know how to take care of myself better than I did in those days; I trained like such a fanatic then. Age is strictly a chronological thing. If you feel young, you're gonna be young."
Norris credits meditation, as well as martial arts, for keeping him balanced. "Learning to meditate was a very enlightening experience for me. It really helped me in focusing. I've been able to accomplish the things that I have by focusing. I don't give up. I just go for it."
Time spent on his ranch, away from the pressures of filming "Walker" in Dallas, is also one of the ways that he can unwind. Happily showing off his cows, llamas, sheep and a bottle-raised 2,000-pound bull named Baby, Norris is at peace. "I come here and I can get into the gym and work out. I can get on my horse and ride. So there are all kinds of ways for me to kind of pull back and recharge and get my center back. It's real hard in this business to keep yourself centered, because there are always so many different things going on that you have to deal with."
What Norris does at the end of a hard day of shooting is unwind with a good cigar: a Lone Wolf, of course. "A cigar is about relaxation for me. After work, I like to sit in my backyard and go over the day's activities in my mind. I like to do that with a cigar in my hand. What I did do, what I didn't do and what I should have accomplished. A cigar gives me a chance to relax and think."
And to wax philosophical. "I've been down and I've been up," he says. "The downs make you appreciate the ups. That's what life is, trials and tribulations. And you can never go back to your past; you've got to move on. When I was a fighter, I was a fighter at that time. I don't miss the ring anymore. I don't want to get all beat up and bruised and all that. I get enough of that doing my own stunts on the show. I've already been there and done that. I've had my accolades in that area of my life and it's time for some new challenges."
One of those challenges is Kick Drugs Out of America. "Gangs are becoming a cancer in America. Every town, large and small, has a gang in it. If we don't do something and give children another direction to go, to belong, we're in big trouble. It's all a matter of belonging. And raising self esteem."
Ever the pragmatist, Chuck Norris weighs the cost of his program against its benefits. "It costs our foundation approximately $400 a year per child and we have approximately 150 kids in each school in the program, so you're talking approximately $60,000 per year to sponsor a school. If this child grows up, gets into trouble and goes to prison, it's gonna cost our society $50,000 a year to keep him in jail. It's an investment to help get this kid on the right track so we don't have to pay our tax dollars to support this child as a prisoner."
Children enter the program as sixth graders and continue through high school, with impressive results. "We have found that if we can grab them around the sixth-grade level, we can keep them from being inducted into gangs. Our instructors go though a stringent training program. And kids can't be a part of our program if they are in a gang or are involved in drugs. If you get into trouble, you're out of the program."
It isn't just about kicking and punching, Norris adds. Kick Drugs teaches life skills. "We teach children that the key in life is setting goals and that understanding that any goal worth accomplishing, there are always going to be obstacles in the way," he says. "But if they have intense desire, drive and persistence, there's nothing they can't accomplish. We emphasize that every day, and it really works." Since its inception in 1990, the program, which now encompasses 20 schools in Houston, Dallas and Chicago, has turned out 13 black belts, five of them girls. More than 3,000 children have graduated from the program. "My goal is to have this program in every school in America," he says. "We're working with about 3,000 kids right now, and I want 30,000, 300,000 and three million."
Norris's sense of purpose is clear. "Hopefully, with Kick Drugs Out of America, we will change society. I want to make my mark with that work. If I could do something to help turn a negative tide in this country, that would be a great legacy." *
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer in Beverly Hills, California.
For further information about Kick Drugs Out of America, contact the organization at 427 West 20th Street, Suite 620, Houston, Texas 77008; phone 713/868-6003.