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At Home on a New Range : CHUCK NORRIS: KARATE CHAMP TURNED ACTION-FILM ACTOR TURNED SERIES STAR?

April 18, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few years ago, martial arts movie star Chuck Norris would never have done a television series.

And it wasn't for lack of offers.

"Gosh, I have had so many offers for series," says the former professional world middleweight karate champion. "I have had a dozen offers for series."

But he turned them all down because they were typical cop and detective series fare. "They were nothing different," says the trim, fit 53-year-old Norris. "I would get bored with it. At least with a movie, you work just 10 weeks on it. In my heart, I never thought I would do it."

So how did CBS lasso him to star in its new modern-day Western, "Walker, Texas Ranger," premiering Wednesday?

"About two years ago I thought, 'I have done 21 movies over 17 years,' " says Norris, who has starred in "Code of Silence," "Force of One," "Invasion U.S.A.," as well as three "Missing in Action" and two "Delta Force" action films. His latest movie, "Sidekicks," opened last week.

"I have been all over the globe," Norris explains. "I am really tired of traveling here and there. If I could find the right series in the right location, maybe I would be interested. That was kind of my subconscious mind talking. As providence would have it, this concept came to me, 'Walker, Texas Ranger.' "

Besides Norris, "Walker" also features Gailard Sartain as C.D. Parker, Walker's buddy who owns a country-Western bar; Clarence Gilyard as Walker's young partner, James Trivette, and Sheree J. Wilson as assistant district attorney Alex Cahill.

Norris liked the screenplay and found Cordell Walker to be a unique TV character. "That was the key for me, to do something that has never been done before," he says. The series would be filmed in Dallas and Fort Worth, and Norris just happens to have a ranch two hours outside Dallas.

Besides, Norris adds, he and Walker have a lot in common. "His father is a full-blooded Cherokee who marries an Irish lady and has a child, which is kind of my background," says the Oklahoma native, who was born Carlos Ray of Cherokee and Irish heritage. "In the series, his parents were killed when he was 12 and he was raised on the reservation until he was 18. He goes into the Marines and becomes the Marine kickboxing champion."

Norris himself dreamed of becoming a policeman, but was too young to join the force after he graduated from high school. So Norris enlisted in the Air Force and began studying martial arts while stationed in South Korea.

Walker, Norris says, is a "do-it" type of guy. "When he goes after a criminal, he is going to get him, but at the same time there is that side to him that his friends know--the compassionate side which they take advantage of. They know how to push his buttons. He is a soft touch."

"Walker" executive producer David Moessinger thinks Norris is somewhat of a soft touch himself, and that's the reason audiences worldwide like him. "I have been around a lot of stars and I have got to tell you, he has an incredible appeal to the masses," he says. "There is a warmth and a honesty about this man. You immediately trust him. He is that way in real life. What you are seeing is what Chuck really is--a very decent, warm and kind person."

Norris hopes "Walker" will be a show the whole family can enjoy. Therefore, violence will be kept to a minimum. "It will be done tastefully," Norris says. "I know there is this big thing about violence. The action has to got to be done in a way that is tasteful. There is no other way to do it. It is a defensive form of action, not an offensive form of action."

"We are really trying our best not to make it violent," Moessinger says. "Chuck will use those things which have made him a world-class star, but we are trying to hold down the violence as much as we can. If he fights, it is more as a choreographed ballet, so to speak."

When Norris isn't acting, he's busy trying to raise funds for his Kick Drugs Out of America Foundation, based in Houston. The foundation teaches the martial arts to 1,000 students in five Houston schools. "These are all inner-city kids," Norris says. "Kids have to belong to something, and if it is not something good, it's going to be something bad. What I'm trying to do is instill these kids with a sense of belonging to something, but in a positive way."

Norris, who at one point in his career operated 32 karate schools and taught such celebs as Steve McQueen, is still surprised by his success. "But the thing about my goals, they have been real small," he says. "It has all been in small increments, so I feel like a very fortunate person."

But his luck came with hard work and focusing on exactly what he wanted. "When I first got into films, (I said) 'I have no experience. I have never done any type of acting. How in the devil am I going to break into the movie field?' "

Norris decided to focus on what type of image he wanted to project. He modeled himself after such film heroes of yesteryear as John Wayne and Gary Cooper: "a guy who doesn't look for trouble but can handle it."

His image, Norris believes, is the secret to his success. "I think that's why I never have had problems on the street," he says. "You know what's so funny? Guys who walk up to me, rugged guys, truck driver-type guys, say, 'Chuck, man, we love you.' I mean it comes from their heart, not in a feminine way, but in a masculine open-hearted way. I am glad that guys feel that way. They don't have to feel insecure saying that they love me."

"Walker, Texas Ranger" premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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