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Good Guys Smoke Cigars

Chuck Norris uses martial arts and profits from his Lone Wolf cigars to help steer kids straight.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

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The number of schools was growing along with his success as a fighter, and Norris wanted to expand his schools to the national level, which created another set of obstacles. To raise cash for the expansion, Norris sold some of his schools to a chain. But due to mismanagement on the part of the new owners, says Norris, within two years they almost lost most of the schools. "They were about to go bankrupt--with my name on them--so I talked to my partners and wound up taking the schools back with a huge debt," he says. "Then I sold the schools off to my individual black belts. I still had about $240,000 in debt that I was personally responsible for, and it took me another five years to pay it off."

Once again, fate would intervene and change Norris's course. "I was giving seminars and teaching private lessons, and Steve McQueen and Priscilla Presley were two of my students. One day Steve asked me what my plans for the future were (I had two kids to support), and he suggested that I pursue an acting career. Even though I had a small role in Return of the Dragon with Bruce Lee, I had had no aspirations to become an actor. So, with about 16,000 unemployed actors in Hollywood with an average income of about $3,000 a year, I talked to my wife about it and I decided, why not go for it?"

Norris had cameo roles in the martial arts movies Slaughter in San Francisco and Return of the Dragon already under his belt, and now he turned his full energies to learning acting.

"It's a funny thing about life. I believe everything is predestined and if the door of opportunity opens, you can either walk through that door or you can leave it open and it will shut back up on you," says Norris. "I decided that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to act, so I checked around and I found that the Estelle Harmon acting school would let me go to school on my GI bill."

After completing his training, Norris started to pound the pavement like any other out-of-work actor in Hollywood. "I went out on a few auditions and was surrounded by actors that I recognized--and I wanted to ask for their autographs! And I said, 'This isn't going to work.'

"One of my black belts told me that I needed to come up with an idea for a movie and make it myself, and he had an idea for me. After he told me the story, I said we should call it, 'Good Guys Wear Black.' I had another student who was a struggling writer who wrote the story on spec." But now the problem for Norris was finding backing for the project. "I found that while I could get in the doors of movie producers because I was the world champion, nobody took me seriously as a actor. I spent three years trying to get the movie made."

Not willing to take no for an answer, Norris came up with a plan. "Eventually we decided that if we could get 10 investors to put up $10,000 each, we could make the movie. I went around and met with potential investors and told them that there were about 4 million karate people in the world, and that I was the world champion for six years and they couldn't see me fight anymore because I was retired, so the only way they could see me fight now is on-screen. I said, if only half of them go, you've got a $6 million gross on your investment. So I got the money to make the movie. But then, no distribution company wanted it, and no theater chain wanted it."

Undaunted, Norris decided in 1979 to distribute the film himself. "I made up 16 prints and we started off in El Paso and San Antonio, and I took the film from city to city. I rented the theater for a week or two and I had my black belts collecting the receipts. I'd do interviews or go to high schools. I'd do 10 to 12 interviews a day and then we'd go on to the next little town. After eight months on the road, we decided to do A Force of One and then we started going to bigger cities. Eventually Good Guys Wear Black did $18 million in gross sales in the United States and A Force of One did over $20 million on a $1.5 million investment. It amazed everybody. We then produced The Octagon and formed a distribution company. It was amazing; in those days, when they offered me $40,000 to star in a movie, I thought if I could get three movies made, I could retire."

The successes of Octagon and A Force of One solidified Norris as a star of action movies, an emerging genre in the early 1980s. His testosterone-rich formula was very simple: The Good Guys were always good, the Bad Guys were always incredibly horrible, and Chuck Norris always delivered his own brand of justice. Norris aficionados will claim that he even invented the "tag line." If you think about it, there would probably be no, "Hasta la vista, baby" without Norris's "Sleep tight, sucker" or "When I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you." While his 1980s films such as An Eye for An Eye, Invasion USA and The Delta Force were never critical successes, Chuck Norris became a bankable international star.

His television series, "Walker, Texas Ranger," proved that the big screen was not the only arena where Norris could be big box office. Since its premiere in April 1993, "Walker" has become one of the few shows in the history of the Saturday 10 p.m. slot to regularly appear among Nielsen's 10 highest-rated shows. Creating a show that blended action, humor, pathos and social concerns was an attractive challenge to Norris.

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