I think everybody needs a hero. Whether you're young or old, you need someone you can look up to," actor Chuck Norris says as he relaxes on his Texas ranch. "I think kids today need someone to emulate, because a lot of times they don't have that at home. Kids have to find it elsewhere. And a lot of kids today look in a negative direction. They look up to drug addicts, gang members, because they don't have positive role models."
Norris is not afraid of the terms "hero" or "role model," nor the responsibilities that come with living up to those titles, and he feels that more celebrities need to embrace these concepts. "I don't approve of athletes or celebrities who say that they don't want to be a role model for children. The kids still look up to them, and the least they can do is not allow their lives to go in a negative direction. They have a responsibility to children whether they like it or not. And I think they should adhere to that responsibility."
From his championship career as a martial artist and his global success in the action adventure film genre, to starring in a successful television series and starting his own cigar line, Chuck Norris has managed to achieve every career goal that he has set for himself. Still, with all of the success, fame, money and toys he has accumulated over the years, Norris isn't satisfied. There is still one battle that he is devoting his life to winning.
In 1990, with the support of President George Bush, Norris launched Kick Drugs Out of America, a program that teaches martial arts in place of standard physical education classes to at-risk youths. "Kick Drugs is about providing kids with a family atmosphere," Norris says, "giving them someone to look up to and to emulate. And to get them set on a positive course in life." Such a program, of course, costs money. To help finance that dream, Norris co-created a line of cigars.
The idea came during a conversation he had one night with his assistant, Winston West. While smoking cigars in Norris's yard, the two reflected upon the millions of dollars being made from such novelty items as hats, bumper stickers and shirts, and Norris wondered, "Why can't we come up with our own phenomenon?" Then he hit upon a brainstorm. "Why don't we open up a cigar lounge and we'll call it Lone Wolf?" proposed Norris, resurrecting the name from his character in the 1983 action film Lone Wolf McQuade. "We can sell Lone Wolf paraphernalia and build [Kick Drugs] up that way.
"Eventually, I was introduced to [investment banker] Marshall Geller and we decided to start our own brand of cigars with [actor] Jim Belushi [and other investors]. We all went down to the Dominican Republic and they asked us what kind of cigars we wanted. I said that I wanted a very mellow cigar. I didn't want a cigar that was going to burn my throat. Jim said he wanted a cigar that would, in effect, blow his head off. So we have different blends of our cigars that go from mellow to strong."
The brand has three blends, all produced in the Dominican Republic: Lobo Rojo, made by La Aurora; Signature Select, made by MATASA; and Vintage Series, produced by Palmarejo Cigars. "When we were making the cigar line we were following our passion," says Belushi. "We followed our own tastes and spent a lot of time crafting them."
Lone Wolf has a new cigar in the works, the Lobito ("baby wolf" in Spanish), that will be approximately 4 inches by 30 ring. "It's a good 10- to 15-minute smoke," says Michael Dunne, senior vice president of operations. Made with Connecticut-shade wrapper and Dominican filler, Lobito will be machine made due to its small size, Dunne adds. The company plans to introduce the cigars, sold in five-packs, in August. Lone Wolf has a few cigar outlets as well. Its cigar lounge, Lone Wolf Dallas, opened in December. There is also a Lone Wolf cigar store in Santa Monica, California, and a Lone Wolf lounge at Merv Griffin's Beverly Hills Hotel.
Norris acknowledges that a role model might take some flack for publicly smoking a cigar, but he sees nothing incongruous about his choice.
"Listen, you've got to be 21 to be smoking a cigar in the first place," Norris says. "And smoking a cigar is an experience, not like smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. A cigar is for relaxation. I do enjoy cigar smoking and I'm old enough to smoke." He smokes one cigar a day--a Lone Wolf. "Anything done in excess is going to be bad for you, whether it's eating, drinking or whatever," he adds. "The key to enjoying cigar smoking is moderation."
Not content to be a celebrity who says one thing in public and does another thing in private, Norris does not equivocate about his enjoyment of cigars. "I'm not going to hide out in some back room and tell the world that I don't smoke cigars. I'm not going to lie about it. And when I created my cigar line, I did not do it so that I, personally, would make any money. It was a way of generating income for my foundation; all of my portion of the profits goes into Kick Drugs Out of America."
Norris's partner Geller agrees. "I don't think kids look at Chuck Norris and say, 'I'm going to smoke a cigar.' People form whatever habits they form based on whether they like something or not. The world wants to blame everybody else for what they do, and that really disturbs me. The man is a role model and he does a lot of charity work for what he believes in. What does that have to do with smoking a cigar?"
Norris is sitting by the lake at his ranch in Navasota, Texas, on a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon as he uncorks a bottle of Pinot Noir, lights a well-aged cigar and shares the story of his life. He was born Carlos Ray Norris, the eldest of three sons, in Ryan, Oklahoma, in 1940. His mother was of Irish and English descent; his father, a Cherokee Indian, deserted the family early in Norris's life. By the time Norris was 10 years old, his family had moved 16 times and he found himself in the unlikely role of caretaker to his two younger brothers, Weiland and Aaron. The experience taught the young Norris about the importance of family. With the strong influence of his mother, he also learned that with determination and persistence, there was no dream that would ever elude his grasp.
Appropriately enough, the man who plays the Lone Star lawman Cordell Walker each week on CBS's "Walker, Texas Ranger" once dreamed of becoming a police officer. Too young to become an officer immediately after high school, Norris spent the next four years in the Air Force, where he joined the military police. He was sent to Korea, where he began martial arts training to further his plans for law enforcement.
"Judo was the thing in the '50s and '60s," he says. "Karate wasn't even a word back then. I enrolled in judo class at Osan Air Force Base in Korea, and two weeks into training, I broke my shoulder."
Ironically, the setback propelled him into a discipline that would eventually change his life. "I had a sling on my arm and I couldn't train, so I went into the village and I kept seeing these heads pop up from behind a knoll. I moseyed up and I saw these Koreans doing these jump-spinning kicks in the air, and I was completely mesmerized. I couldn't believe a human body could do all of those things: jumps, heel kicks and all that. And they looked so mean, I was afraid to go over and ask what they were doing. My judo instructor on the base told me it was called tang soo do. He took me back to the village and introduced me to Mr. Shin, the instructor, and I started training while I still had one arm in a cast. I was training every day and every night, five hours a day, six days a week, and on Sunday, I studied judo. My arm eventually healed, and eventually the name of tang soo do was changed to tae kwan do."
Martial arts was to have many emotional as well as physical benefits for Norris. "By the time I left Korea, I had my black belt in tae kwan do and my brown belt in judo, and an interesting transformation was taking place. When I was growing up, I was a real shy kid. I guess not having a father image, a man to give you that strength of character, contributed to that. Martial arts really changed all that. That's why I'm such an advocate of the martial arts--because it does help you change your life in a positive direction. It helps you to be able to communicate, to be more self-assured, and it raises your self-esteem, which is the most important thing. It instills discipline and respect, which is lacking in many young kids. Discipline was the most important lesson I learned very early on in my martial arts career."
Norris returned home from the service in 1962 and decided to moonlight as a martial arts instructor to earn a little extra money for his family, giving lessons in his parents' backyard. "I married Dianne in 1958, before I went into the service. After I got out, I went to work at Northrop Aviation because our first son, Michael, was on the way." He tried out and passed his exam to enter the police force, but he was unwilling to wait the six months before he could enter the police academy. He decided instead to open up a martial arts school in Torrance, California, quit his job at Northrop and started teaching full time. A year later, he opened up a second school, then a third.
"I decided that the best way to get more students was to become a karate fighter. I entered my first tournament in Salt Lake City, took three of my students in my old, beat-up car--which barely made the trip--and we all fought in the tournament. My three students won and I lost. I drove back to California and they held their trophies. Philosophies are developed through experience, and I was really upset by losing. I said, 'While I may lose again, I'll never lose the same way twice.' That way you don't lose; you gain knowledge. Eventually, you realize that the only time you ever really lose is when you don't learn something from the experience."
Giving up on his dreams was never an option. In 1964, he won the L.A. Open. "I thought, if I could win the L.A. Open, why not the state? So in 1965, I won the state title. Then I thought, why not the national?" Norris proceeded to do just that, capturing the All-American karate title in New York in 1966. That same year, he won the international middleweight championship. In 1967 he won the middleweight division again and won the grand championship by beating the lightweight and heavyweight champions. In 1968 he won the grand championship title again, and he was the number one fighter in the country. "My schools by that time were running pretty well, so I decided to try for the international world middleweight title in New York at Madison Square Garden. I [won and] held that title and went undefeated until my retirement in 1974."
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.
"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.
"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.