Clean-shaven and wearing a mauve linen-look blazer, Chuck Norris welcomes yet another interviewer into his mauve office on the edge of Beverly Hills. He is all smiles and wants you to know right off the bat that he is not an inarticulate jock who goes around kicking men in the abdomen.
His new movie should help him get the message across. Norris plays a sensitive police detective who is in love with a pregnant psychologist and on the trail of a serial killer. "Hero and the Terror" is a departure for Norris. None of his past movies have allowed the actor such breadth of character or dramatic range.
"This role was a little more challenging because I had to stretch as an actor," he says, leaning back in a swivel chair. "I probably wouldn't have attempted this five or six years ago, but I've been in the business 12 years now and have 17 films under my belt. Now was the time."
Norris is one of those celebrities who never would have been pegged for stardom by his grade school teachers.
Slightly built, non-athletic and formerly shy to the point of being neurotic, the 47-year-old actor, who has lived in North Tustin for two years, has not had an easy time of it. Every phase of his life has been an uphill battle, from his birth in Oklahoma as a "blue baby" with an alcoholic father, to his years as a shy and insecure teen-ager in Torrance, to his efforts in becoming a karate champion. His autobiography, published last year by Little, Brown and Co., begins: "Nothing ever came easy for me, not even being born."
So it was a rough childhood. But then he became a world champion karate star, a successful actor, an author and a wealthy family man who has been married to the same woman for nearly 30 years. This is tough?
"That's one of the reasons I wrote the book," he says. "A lot of people think it was easy. Most people see a person in his success mode and they say, 'Boy, was he lucky. He was a karate star. Then he did movies.' But it was extremely difficult. Extremely difficult."
Norris leans forward, clasps his hands together and pounds them on his desk for emphasis. All the while making constant eye contact. Yes, this guy is earnest.
"Remember I was a non-athlete. I jumped into the karate world, but I didn't have the natural attributes that so many of the fighters had. And because I didn't have those natural attributes, I had to train a lot harder than anybody else. But I knew I had to in order to win."
He lives in a large house in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, surrounded by lakes and trees. His life is rich, but he bristles at the notion that he has been lucky or destined for fame and fortune. He wants others who have faced adversity to know the road to his rich life was filled with hurdles.
Overcoming obstacles and thinking positively have been Norris' co-pilots his whole life. They are the lessons he inherited from his mother and are the themes of his book. Each chapter ends with a set of encouraging remarks or guidelines: Do what has to be done without complaint and think only positively. Don't allow yourself to think negatively.
Norris had first dreamed of becoming a policeman. But upon graduating from North Torrance High School, was too young to join the police department. He enlisted in the Air Force to join the Military Police.
While in the service, he was sent to South Korea, where he opted to study the martial arts rather than, as he says in his book, "hang around the barracks and play cards, booze it up or enroll in an academic class." Soon, many of his insecurities and his lack of confidence subsided. He became strong.
It took about six months but as I became more proficient . . . many of the psychological insecurities started to subside. I was becoming more communicative and assertive, and I had a better self-image. My attitude toward others began to change.
After a year of daily practice, Norris earned his black belt.
" For the first time in my life, I had accomplished something difficult on my own. I had belief in myself and the strength to accomplish more. I also found that working toward a goal was more rewarding than achieving it.
Norris spent the late 1960s and early 1970s teaching karate, competing and opening schools that grew with the popularity of the martial arts. In the mid-'70s, financial problems threatened to close the schools at a time when he had decided to retire from competition. After winning nearly every major title possible, including that of world professional middleweight champion, Norris officially left the ring in 1974.
Soon, he grew bored and restless. Then one of his heroes made a ludicrous suggestion. Steve McQueen, who had learned karate from the champ, suggested he try acting. Forget it, Norris said, unable to imagine himself on the screen. Then McQueen reminded him of the positive-thinking credo that had guided his life.
"I jumped into films when I was in my mid-30s. I had no experience, I'd never even done a high school play. And here I'm trying to jump into the acting field. If I looked at it in a negative way, I would have . . . given up. But from training myself over the years to think positively and to realize that if there was a will there was a way, I was able to achieve success. And by thinking if I could project a certain image on the screen, maybe that would overcome my inability as an actor at this point in time.
"When a door shuts in your life, that doesn't mean that a bigger door isn't going to open. That's what happened to me. If I hadn't lost my schools, I'd still be there teaching karate. But because I lost those schools I was forced to seek another avenue. And acting is a bigger door than karate."
After making nine films, Norris started to attract widespread attention for his 10th movie, "Lone Wolf McQuade," in 1982 in which he played Texas Ranger James J. McQuade. His role as Sergeant Eddie Cusack in 1985's "Code of Silence" won him the best reviews of any of his 17 pictures. His "Missing in Action" movies (in 1984 and 1985) have been his most popular, especially with action film fans.
"Ahhh. My wife hated those," says Norris, who adds that she hasn't liked anything he's done except "Hero" for quite some time.
Despite the fact that Norris is chatty and engaging when he wants to be, the actor insists he is by nature quiet, focused and deliberate. In some respects, he and his action film counterparts are very similar.
"The character I play is more of a thinker, and he reacts more with his eyes than his mouth. And that's me in most cases. I'm really not that much of a talker.
" 'Hero' is the closest to my character than any I've ever done. In most of my films you see Chuck Norris, the man in the arena, always dealing with the conflict and having to deal with it physically. In 'Hero' you see the man outside the arena as well. When I used to fight I would walk down the aisle smiling and shake hands with the audience on the way to the ring. But once in the ring my whole demeanor changed. I'd become very intense, focused and aggressive. But when the fight was over I'd go back to my lighter side."
The former fighter has been as focused on honing his acting skills as he was about developing his arsenal of punches and drop kicks. In a deep voice that sounds slightly Southern, he explains his determination.
"It takes me a long time to decide to do something, but once I decide, that's it. Because I know it's gonna be harder than heck to do it. It's going to be a hard row to hoe for me to achieve something. Because everything in my life has been tough. Nothing I've done has come easy. Whether it's been in the karate world, the movie world or my marriage.
"You know, whether you've been married a year, 10 years or almost 30 years as I have, you're always facing crises and changes in the relationship."
Norris says that although his marriage has weathered every storm, his film celebrity produced the most squalls.
"Jumping into the film business, with the notoriety, the lack of privacy, those are changes and you have to adjust to those. And it puts a strain on the marriage, but you have to be able to adjust."
With a reputation for friendliness that his films have done little to diminish, Norris is the kind of actor from whom fans have little trouble getting autographs.
"I'm so darn approachable," he says in his Oklahoma drawl. "I guess because of my personality. I can't say no, get out of my life. But I don't really mind. The people are so nice."
The Norris house is set back in the hills, where labyrinthine roads wind around wooded estates, million-dollar homes and horse ranches. The actor says he still sometimes gets lost in his Lemon Heights neighborhood.
"About the second week I lived there I started driving up the mountains to my house and . . . I'm trying to decide which way to go when these two kids on bicycles ride up and say, 'Mr. Norris, are you lost?' I go, 'Yeah, a little bit,' and they say, 'Well, follow us, we'll show you where you live.' So here I am following two boys on bikes all the way up to my house."
And he still has trouble finding his way around Orange County.
"I don't know where the devil I am half the time."
Norris and his wife, Dianne, who was also his high school sweetheart, moved to the county five years ago when they bought a restaurant in Newport Beach. Dianne ran the restaurant, sold it at a handsome profit and is now in the music business, producing records in Toluca Lake. Their son Mike is making movies and their son Eric is in college.
Since the couple spend so much time in Los Angeles, their days in Orange County may be numbered, he says. But for now, they're delighted with the idyllic niche they've carved in the foothills.
"It's a young, progressive area," Norris says. "A lot of my family lives up (in the Los Angeles area). And, for Orange County, it's so isolated where we are, it's just a very, very serene area. But whether we stay or not, I just don't know."
Norris is spending a lot of his time these days on the water, competing in gas-powered boat races. He recently broke the diesel-powered boat record in a swing from San Francisco to Los Angeles and hopes to shatter the gas-powered record.
"I love speed," he says. "And I hate to lose."
Joseph N. Bell, who usually writes Portraits, is on vacation.