Television • Chuck Norris
Who knew Walker, Texas Ranger would be a hit? He did.
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FIVE YEARS AGO Bud Shrake and I got a call from our mutual agent asking if we’d be interested in writing a pilot for a CBS series about a modern-day Texas Ranger starring Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris! Get real. “I can’t write something I wouldn’t watch,” I said smugly.
Today I stand humbled, hat in hand, crow in mouth, poorer but maybe wiser. My reason isn’t that Walker, Texas Ranger has emerged as one of the most popular shows on TV, the only one airing Saturday nights—the least-watched evening of the week—to crack the Nielsen top twenty consistently. Frankly, I still can’t watch it. I stand humbled because I recently met Chuck Norris and discovered that indeed he is real. Norris is Walker. Or Walker is Norris. America hasn’t experienced a more genuine hero since Roy Rogers routinely routed evil.
Even the Texas Rangers like him. They hate Ranger Cordell Walker’s long hair and beard, naturally, and they resent the fact that he wears a black hat and never a necktie, and they are perplexed that he dispatches villains with a leg rather than a fist. (Norris was the middleweight karate champion of the world from 1968 to 1970 and is the only non-Korean in the history of the martial art of tae kwon do to be selected a grand master.) But the Rangers sense that Norris’ Walker is a straightforward practitioner of old-timey law and order, a decent and honorable man who lives by his instincts, does the right thing, thinks the right thoughts, and won’t take the Fifth Amendment for an answer. “It sounds corny,” says Bob Gookin, one of the show’s writers, “but Chuck is a really good guy who believes deeply in the values Walker believes in: You don’t fight until you have to and then you fight to win.”
In June, Norris (or is it Walker?) meets me at the front door of his attractively decorated home in North Dallas. The house is not much different from others in this upper-middle-class neighborhood. He offers me a bottle of springwater—his father was an alcoholic, so he drinks nothing stronger than coffee—and sits in a yoga position on a stuffed chair in his living room. He is a trim 174 pounds in black shorts and a T-shirt. It’s hard to believe he’s 56.
Our conversation is easy and honest and full of good humor. “I’m a very patriotic guy,” Norris says. “I give a lot of speeches to kids as part of my Kick Drugs Out of America program and tell them how lucky they are to be raised in this country. You can start at the bottom, just as I did—in a poor, single-parent family on welfare—and with work and sacrifice be successful. Walker really believes that, and Chuck Norris really believes that, because we’ve done it.” Norris’ dog, a lovable honey-colored Alsatian shepherd named Angel, rests her head on his knee. “Spoiled rotten,” he informs me. Angel was one of two sick, crippled, and nearly starved strays that he brought home from a location shoot last year. The other dog had only three legs and died a short time later, but Angel survived because Norris sent her to a clinic in San Diego for two hip replacements. He has ten more stray dogs at his seven-hundred-acre working ranch near Navasota, which he bought long before the TV series brought him to Texas.
Before I arrived, Norris had worked out for two hours in the small gym next to his living room. After I leave, he’ll read through the script of a future episode with his writers, making changes when he spots something amiss—“Walker wouldn’t say that”—and then spend three hours rehearsing the show he’ll film later in the week. “This is my first day off in four months,” he says without a trace of conceit or irony. The Walker cast and crew work ten months a year, five days a week, fourteen hours a day, almost always in or near Dallas. The writers, producers, and crew members I talked to were universal in their praise of Norris, describing his generosity and the quiet confidence of his vision. Walker is a success, they say, because the big cigars at CBS let him mold the character. “He has a natural sense of what will play,” says Gookin.
It’s no coincidence that Cordell Walker was born in Texas, the son of a Cherokee father and an Irish mother, and at age twelve watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by a gang of racist rowdies at a carnival. Carlos Ray “Chuck” Norris was born near the Texas border in Ryan, Oklahoma, and is Cherokee and Irish on both parents’ sides. Practically abandoned by their father, Norris and his two younger brothers were raised by a deeply religious mother who escaped poverty by taking a job in a California aircraft factory. He joined the Air Force immediately after high school with the goal of training as a military policeman in preparation for a career in law enforcement. After boot camp, just eighteen, he married. “I function best when there is a woman in my life,” he says. “I went straight from my mother to my wife, and when we divorced [thirty years later], it was a shock.” While stationed in South Korea, Norris learned that country’s language and martial art. After four years in the military, he moved to Los Angeles and began teaching karate. He also studied the martial arts of Japan and China, fusing them into his own universal martial art, chun kuk do, which he used to win a world title. By the time he retired undefeated in 1974, he owned nine karate schools (he later lost them in a bad business deal).
It was one of his students, actor Steve McQueen, who suggested that Norris take up acting. “Acting is a presence you either have or don’t have,” McQueen told him. “I think you have it.” It is exactly that presence that makes Walker work. It dominates the screen, arrests the eye, and sedates the mind. Though the plots of the series are simpleminded, Norris exudes the Zen principles of martial arts: discipline, honor, courage, loyalty, compassion, respect. There are no shades of gray. Good guys win; bad guys are punished.
Norris has played essentially the same character in most of his 23 feature films, from Good Guys Wear Black (1978) to Top Dog (1995). He has no ambition to play Hamlet, Willy Loman, or anyone except himself. “You have an image to protect,” he says. “Whether it’s Walker or Braddock from Missing in Action, it’s still Chuck Norris on the screen.” When he talks to kids from poor or broken homes, Norris tells them his own story, how martial arts taught him self-esteem and discipline and kept him striving, sometimes against almost insurmountable odds.
When the cast and crew take their annual hiatus in August, Norris will pause long enough to travel to Europe with his girlfriend, Monica—his first vacation in four years. Then, in September, Norris will again assume the role of Walker and perhaps answer the hottest question of the new TV season: Will his platonic relationship with Alex, the beautiful assistant district attorney played by Sheree J. Wilson, catch fire? They have fooled around a little, mostly in dream sequences. Is this the year they’ll get together? “I honestly don’t know,” Norris says. “If they do consummate the relationship, where do you go from there?”
I know how Shrake and I would resolve it, but I don’t think either Norris or Walker would approve.