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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

(continued from page 3)

"I thought that it had enough action to appeal to a male audience, and that the Alex Cahill character [an assistant district attorney played by actress Sheree Wilson] had enough kibitzing and an undercurrent of romance to appeal to a female audience, and that there was a nice humorous touch to the script, and we could keep the show focused on action as opposed to violence, so the kids could watch it. I thought we had all of the ingredients to create a long-running series; there really wasn't anything on television like it."

As usual, success didn't come easy, and Norris had to learn a couple of hard lessons on his road to the Top 10. At the start, the show had a two-hour movie and two one-hour episodes in the can, when Cannon Films, the original producers, filed for bankruptcy. "We no longer had the deficit financing, so the show went on hiatus. After about four months, CBS decided to bring the show in-house and finance it from their in-house production unit. They brought in a whole new team and the first year was incredibly aggravating."

Norris pauses, taking a puff on his cigar. "Boy, it was just one tough year. I wasn't getting the help I needed to make the show successful. All of my years at Cannon [Norris had a seven-year film contract with Cannon in the 1980s] saved me there. I was able to take over the writing, the editing, and do all of the things myself to help the show stay on the air. Every year, for the first four years of production, I was changing 'show runners' [executive producers] to try and find the one show runner that had a vision that I had for the show and a writing staff that had that same vision. In the fourth year I brought my brother [Aaron] in and the [ranking of "Walker" among shows] was at that point in the high 30s, and he started getting me good scripts. Then he brought in some great directors of photography, and all of a sudden the show went from a 'B movie' to an 'A movie.' Then the ratings went to the 20s, and then it went all the way to a top-10 show. And on a Saturday night! We basically reinvented Saturday night. The last time anyone watched TV on a Saturday night was when 'Magnum PI' was on; Saturday was the dead zone until 'Walker' came along. Who would have thought that this July we'll start our sixth year of production?"

In a time of moral ambiguity on television as well as in film, Norris is unafraid to be thought of as "good." "I think the appeal of 'Walker' lies in its positive mode. Justice versus injustice. Right over wrong. Unfortunately in our society today, everything is on a negative side. Sometimes evil wins out over good. And I think people need something good to grab hold of. 'Walker' is a way to look at a situation and say, 'You know, there is good in the world--and good is good. Not 'bad is good'; good is good. Good hasn't been really cool since the 1960s, and I really believe that the majority of people do not feel that way. My show would not be as successful as it is if people didn't believe that good is cool, because that's what my show is all about."

Despite great ratings, coupled with years of box office success, Norris takes more than his share of punches from the critics. "The critics kill me. The critics call me corny, but we still win our time slot. But I've always had a tough time with the critics. The only movie out of my 22-movie career where I actually got good reviews was Code of Silence. And everybody wants good reviews. But Steve McQueen told me once that you can get the best reviews in the world and if no one goes to see your movie, you're not going to make any more movies. Critics can give you the worst reviews in the world, and if your movie is a huge success, you're going to keep working. So where do you want to lean toward?

"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.

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