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Walking Tall : CHUCK NORRIS PROVES TO CBS HE'S A 'COMPETITIVE GUY'

March 17, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chuck Norris kicks a lot of bad guy butt every Saturday night, and suddenly this past month, with little hype or promotion, he's been kicking butt in the ratings too.

"Walker, Texas Ranger," now in its fourth season, has kicked and scratched and fought so well, in fact, that Norris, who stars as Walker and also serves as the show's executive producer along with Tom Blomquist, has accomplished the near impossible: lifting a show on Saturday night--the least watched evening of the week for the major networks--into the Top 10.

"Getting 'Walker' into the Top 10 has always been my goal, and it's something that CBS never thought I could do with a Saturday night show--a night that everyone considers the dead zone," Norris says in an interview from the show's set in Dallas. "Not in their deepest prayers did they think we could do that. But I'm a competitive guy. That's how I got to be a world champion [in karate]. Even when they talked about moving me to another night, I said, 'No. I'm going to stay here and prove it to you.' "

"Walker" has done well all season--especially for a Saturday-night show, especially for a Saturday-night show on CBS, which has struggled in prime time the past year. But throughout the month of February, "Walker's" ratings jumped higher than Norris can karate kick, finishing in 10th place twice and 11th place twice.

"It is obviously one of our most pleasant surprises, and it really is a great accomplishment," says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. "Chuck Norris is a very underrated television star. In a way he's a throwback to the old kind of Western heroes--that tradition of the good guys always beating the bad guys--in a time now when people are really looking for heroes. He has really begun to strike a chord."

But aside from the cold weather that gripped much of the country, no one is certain why viewership rose so suddenly.

Moonves said that when "Walker" premiered in April, 1993, it faced fairly strong competition from "The Commish" on ABC and "Sisters" on NBC. Now "The Commish" is gone and "Sisters" is on its way.

"It takes a while for some shows, especially on such a weak night, to catch on, for people to find it," Moonves says. "And, in a way, it has simply outlasted the competition."

Norris, known for action movies such as "Lone Wolf McQuade," "The Delta Force" and "Return of the Dragon" with Bruce Lee, practically apologized for the content of the show in its first season. The drama about a crime-fighting Texas lawman was too heavy on action--virtually nothing but action--"and after a while, action and just more action gets boring," he said.

Working with new writers, he endeavored to round out the show, building humor, heart, relationships and moral lessons into every episode.

The red-bearded tough guy is still a fighting machine--many of his black-belt friends and students serve as bad guys on the show so the hand-to-hand combat comes off as spectacularly realistic. But the other elements--Walker's unconsummated romantic adventures with a female district attorney and stories that deal with such social concerns as spousal abuse--have been the key to broadening the audience beyond pure action fans.

"I've finally gotten the show to where I want it, and that's to a place where you really don't know what to expect each Saturday," Norris says. "One week we might have an episode about the peer pressure on kids to become involved in street gang violence, and the next week is something that is fairly silly and humorous, and the next is a race-against-time type drama with Walker trying to rescue a child that is trapped in a well.

"There's heart and it's emotional and gripping and that's where we've been able to get some of the women who used to watch 'Sisters.' We still have action, unbelievable action in many cases. All of the fight scenes are complicated and exciting and you also see stuff that you don't even see in a lot of feature films, like one where a guy fell out of a plane without a parachute and I had to jump out after him and catch him before he hit the ground."

The struggle to overcome the perception of him as "the black-belt guy" contributed to the show's slow start, Norris said.

"The first couple of years, people would come up to me and ask, 'Hey, what are you doing these days?' and when I'd tell them, they had never heard of it," Norris says. "And I simply think that people have finally found us. And what I hear and suspect is true, because of the ratings, is that once people try it, they get hooked and it becomes something that they look forward to every week. It has to be word of mouth or pure luck with people fishing around for something to watch, because no one is doing any advertising. It's not like we're 'Friends' or 'ER.' No one is sticking me on the cover of People magazine."

Moonves wonders if it's the nature of today's Saturday-night network audience that has made hits of all three of CBS' wholesome, rural dramas: "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," "Touched By an Angel" and "Walker."

"Maybe these kinds of shows could work during the week," he says, though most of the weeknight hits are more urban and sophisticated comedies and dramas like "Seinfeld" and "NYPD Blue." "But it has become clear that Saturday nights on CBS are representative of the values that many people in this country are looking for today--a kind of pure, old-fashioned Americana. I see it as the old 'Saturday night at the movies,' where you can sit back with popcorn and enjoy. It's cheaper than renting a video and, in many cases, it's a lot more satisfying."

"Walker, Texas Ranger" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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