It would be very easy for me to kill a man," says six-time world middleweight karate champ Chuck Norris, 40, but he never raises a foot in anger. Instead, Norris has bowled over the box office in a string of low-budget martial arts flicks—Good Guys Wear Black, A Force of One and currently The Octagon—which have grossed a crunching $40 million. Despite an acting style often as wooden as a two-by-four breakboard, Norris has only one rival as heir apparent to chop-socky legend Bruce Lee. It is Jackie Chan, whose The Big Brawl is busting out all over. But Norris says there is a difference: "Jackie doesn't want the hero image. He's primarily an acrobat and wants to be a Korean Burt Reynolds. I've always wanted to be like John Wayne."

A tall order, but Norris, a wiry 5'10" and 165 pounds ("I've weighed the same for 20 years"), is used to intimidating prospects. His films may be bloodier than the Duke's, but Norris avoids the "eye-gouging and throat-ripping" typical of the genre. And at home, he provides a more contemporary definition of macho. "The greatest thrill in my life now is that my sons [Mike, 18, and Eric, 15] kiss me hello and goodbye in front of everybody," Chuck beams. "You can't buy that for a million dollars."

In his frequent public appearances, Norris downplays the violent aspects of his sport in favor of the spiritual. "So many kids today have such a low opinion of themselves," believes Norris, who points out that he was once insecure and dirt poor. "The physical training of karate is really the vehicle to strengthen a kid emotionally," he continues. "I want kids to understand where I came from and how I made it. I use myself as an example of how someone pulled himself up from zero.'

More precisely, from Ryan, Okla., where he was born Carlos Ray Norris, the eldest of three sons (the middle brother was killed in Vietnam) of an Irish-English mother and a Cherokee father who abandoned the family early. "He was a cliché a drunken Indian," says Norris. "My mother worked very hard in a laundry, but we were often hungry." Things improved a bit when she moved the family to Torrance, Calif., but Chuck, then 12, still felt like "a real bust in school. I never got up in front of the class and spoke. As for physical abilities, I had none. I played football, but sat on the bench."

After graduation, Norris married his high school sweetheart, Dianne Holechek, now 39, joined the Air Force and during a stint in Korea started studying karate—with unspectacular results. "Nothing comes easily to me," says Norris, who nonetheless stuck with five-hour-a-day workouts because, "for the first time, I wanted to make something of my life." He began moonlighting as a karate teacher in Torrance in 1962 while working as a file clerk for Northrop Aviation, and won the first of his consecutive middleweight titles in 1968. At a New York tourney he met martial arts godfather Bruce Lee. In 1972 Lee, who died of brain edema a year later, cast his friend Norris for the classic fight scene in Return of the Dragon. The movie reportedly cost $135,000 and has so far grossed $60 million. When Norris' own 1977 fledgling effort, Breaker! Breaker!, brought in $6 million on a $500,000 investment, he quit teaching. (Students included Steve McQueen, Bob Barker and Marie Osmond.)

Along the way, Norris has gotten both physical breaks—he has fractured his nose four times, his jaw once, his shoulder twice and his toes often—and financial (a millionaire, his Mercedes' plates read "TOPKICK"). He and his family and four dogs occupy a five-bedroom ranch house in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. that includes a hot tub and a gym where Norris works out three hours daily. "I'm on the road so darn much, I like to spend as much time at home as possible," says Chuck. "You can be a movie star one day and unknown the next. Success to me is having a wonderful family."