The star seemed a natural for television popularity, but the timing appeared touchy when Chuck Norris’ one-hour series, “Walker, Texas Ranger,” was launched on CBS last year.
An action series headlining the karate and film veteran, the show arrived on the network just as a national furor was building over TV violence.
“Sure did,” Norris acknowledges.
As expected, the actor drew a sizable audience in his 10 p.m. time slot on Saturday, normally the weakest night for network TV. “Walker, Texas Ranger” ranked 47th among 128 prime-time network series this season, earning a solid 21% share of the viewing audience and beating out its head-on competition, ABC’s “The Commish” and NBC’s “Sisters.”
The Norris series, which deals with a modern-day Texas Ranger whose crime-solving techniques are--in CBS’ words--"in the rugged traditions of the Old West,” helped the network secure a lock on Saturdays, paired with another tradition-oriented program, Jane Seymour’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
By suddenly turning Saturday night back into a viable viewing entity, CBS also helped ensure its third consecutive year as the ratings leader, based mainly on a four-day stretch each week--Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. It is during these days that the network airs such hits as “60 Minutes,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Murphy Brown,” “Northern Exposure,” “Rescue 911" and the weekly Sunday and Tuesday movies.
The ratings success of “Walker, Texas Ranger” amid the controversy over TV violence--with the government issuing threats to the industry about programming--is no surprise to Norris. This season, at least, both he and CBS--which has an older and probably more conservative prime-time audience--may well have tapped into mainstream concern about crime and dealing with it directly.
Norris doesn’t think his show is violent. He speaks of “justifiable force” to combat injustice. And if there is a surprise about the series to those who thought it might provoke anti-violence protests, it is that “Walker, Texas Ranger” hasn’t caused much controversy at all.
Regarding the show’s action, Norris, who has a home in Tarzana and a ranch in Navasota, Tex.--about three hours from Dallas, where the show is filmed--says: “It’s how it’s done. I don’t advocate violence for violence’s sake. What Walker does is fight injustice. What people hang on to is that the good guy wins in the end.
“There haven’t been a lot of action shows on, like ‘Magnum, P.I.,’ in a long time. But people want to see good win out over evil. If you’re walking out of a restaurant and you’re accosted, you’d love to have the ability to deal with the situation if you had to.”
Norris, who was born Carlos Ray in Ryan, Okla., the son of an Irish-English mother and Cherokee father, moved to Torrance with his family when he was 12. Nowadays, with his main home in Texas, he focuses much of his attention on his Kick Drugs Out of America Foundation, which he set up in 1990 and which focuses on youngsters.
“We’re now (involved in) 12 schools and have had about 1,500 kids in our first three years. We teach the martial arts during physical education. We found that kids start veering one way or the other when they’re about 11, 12 or 13, so we began focusing on sixth, seventh and eighth grade kids to give them an alternative to gang involvement. It’s about 40% girls and 60% boys.
“Teaching martial arts teaches them the discipline that many kids are lacking today. You see shows in prime time, like ‘Cops,’ that show reality on the streets. And there are others that I think are not healthy for kids to see on the air. Lots of times you see what the bad guy does, but you don’t see him getting his due. It’s important that kids today realize they can’t get away with things.
“If I thought that ‘Walker’ had any kind of devastating effect, especially on kids, I wouldn’t do this series. I don’t need this series. I make more money on films than on TV. I’ve turned down five films so far during the show. And in a film, I work just eight weeks instead of nine months.”
Then why did he take on the series?
“It keeps me closer to my home and my foundation.”
Did he get any warnings from CBS prohibiting potential violence on the show?
“They never said anything to me. I told them, ‘If I can’t do it the way I feel it’s right, I don’t want to do the series.’ I’ve been in this business for 20 years. They left me alone. They didn’t bother me. I talked with (CBS executives) Peter Tortorici and Jeff Sagansky, and they said, ‘Go for it.’ They backed me all the way.
“If I got letters saying the show was violent, I’d have toned it down, but I don’t get those kinds of letters. There is a difference between action and violence. The characters I play portray their skills only as a last resort.”
While “Walker” is distinctly traditional rather than hip or trendy, Norris maintains it is also “a positive form of entertainment that doesn’t leave you depressed at the end. That’s what people are looking for. Why are comedies so big?”
But “to be truthful,” he says, he rarely watches episodic television, preferring to tune in the news. Besides, he says, he is getting involved in various business ventures, here and abroad, capitalizing on his name, his martial arts skills and international reputation. For instance?
“I went to Moscow about two years ago. I got invited to a kick-boxing event and saw great opportunities there. We’re in the middle of (attempting) a casino-nightclub combination.”
In addition, he says, his projects include possibilities in interactive TV, games and martial arts stores around the world.
“There are,” Norris says, “other things I want to do rather than sit in front of a TV set.”
* Tonight’s “Walker, Texas Ranger” is a two-hour episode that begins an hour earlier than usual, at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).
‘If I got letters saying the show was violent, I’d have toned it down, but I don’t get those kinds of letters. There is a difference between action and violence. The characters I play portray their skills only as a last resort.’
‘Walker, Texas Ranger’