Want a Kick? Take a Day in Florida to Meet the Original Karate Kid, Chuck Norris

updated 06/03/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/03/1985 01:00AM

He's the action hero of 12 karate movies in eight years. His latest, Code of Silence, in which he plays a Chicago cop kicking the habit out of some dastardly drug smugglers, is shaping up as his biggest hit ever. But right now Chuck Norris is having a tough day.

Monday was easy. All he had to do on location near Florida's Lake Okeechobee for his new flick, Invasion U.S.A. (due in August), was spend several hours waist-deep in mud, wrestling an alligator. Tuesday was fun; he was learning to negotiate one of those treacherous swamp buggies. "They're tricky," says Norris, with the grin of a man who relishes a challenge. "Those suckers can sink real easy." Tomorrow also has possibilities. Chuck's task is to leap out the back window of a cabin just ahead of a terrorist attack.

Today, though, is real trouble. On this Wednesday Norris must stand still between scenes for an interview and pictures. "I hate it," he says. "I never know what to do." In the 95° F shade, Norris looks hellishly uncomfortable as a makeup woman on the movie rearranges his long blond locks and sprays his bare chest, arms and back until his skin fairly glistens with insect repellant.

Norris, you should know, is a nice, no-nonsense guy (you couldn't bribe a crew member to say a discouraging word about him). He's made a decent living with his chops, kicks and jabs, and his fans have dutifully filed into drive-ins across the country to catch his act. Now things have changed. Without dramatically altering his acting style (charitably described as wooden), he is getting the star treatment. Code of Silence, raved the New York Times, "could well be his breakout picture."

Norris, 45, has waited a long time to join the Eastwood-Bronson class, so he's going along with the media fuss. His salary, once $5,000 a film, is now almost $2 million. Invasion U.S.A., the third of his six-picture deal with Cannon Films, gives him considerable artistic control and his biggest budget yet, $12 million. (He's also been signed to do a film with Charles Bronson called The Delta Force.) Norris has spoken effusively about the Invasion footage already shot in Florida and Georgia: "We were able to blow up eight homes in Atlanta and the Columbia Mall."

Despite the R ratings on most of his movies (in the recent Missing in Action 2 he bit off a rat's head), Norris claims they're not overly violent. "The buildup makes it look like more. I do violence in a self-defense way." He has indeed cut down on the number of martial arts sequences in his films, which may account in part for his new appeal to a wider audience. "I'm finally getting women to come to see my movies," he announced not long ago. "I wouldn't want to chase them off."

Norris films tend to avoid suggestive sex, swearing, boozing and drugging. "Kids need heroes," he has said. "Call it square if you want, but I'm a flag waver, so I push a lot of Americanism in my movies. Whatever it is I'm doing, people seem to like it."

Watching him in various locations, patiently doling out autographs and advice to kids, only enhances the family-man image. Wife Dianne and their sons—Eric, 19, a student at El Camino Junior College, and Mike, 21, an actor—are frequent visitors on location. Eric is working as a double and a gofer on Invasion. At lunch he approaches his dad's table and unabashedly plants a good-afternoon kiss on Chuck's cheek. "It's a great feeling that my boys are not afraid to show love," says Chuck. "You can't buy that."

The biggest Norris fan of all is Dianne, who's been married to Chuck for 26 years. "I just love this guy so much," she says. "He's my best friend." In 1983, Norris bought a restaurant, Woody's Wharf, for Dianne to run in Newport Beach, Calif., near their home in Rolling Hills Estates. "It was losing $20,000 a month," Norris explains. "I said, 'If that's what you want, it's yours.' I'd buy her the moon if she wanted it because she stood by me through the hard years." Norris reports that Dianne has turned Woody's into the No. 1 restaurant on the "Beach." She's also just completed writing a movie treatment, an action-comedy called City Slicker that may become an upcoming vehicle for Norris. "She's done it all on her own initiative and drive," says Chuck. "I'm real proud of her."

Norris blushes under his sunburned cheeks as he tells how Dianne singled him out when she was 15, and he was a painfully shy 16-year-old newcomer to North Torrance (Calif.) High School. "That's the guy I'm going to marry," Dianne Holechek told a girlfriend. Norris got the word via the grapevine, but he says, "It took me a month to muster the courage to talk to her."

The diffident side of Norris doesn't fit the image, but it's there. Born Carlos Ray Norris in Ryan, Okla., he's the eldest of three sons—the middle brother was killed in Vietnam and Chuck's Missing in Action films are a tribute to him—of a Baptist mother and a Cherokee father who was an alcoholic. After Dad left home, Mom moved the family to California and remarried, but Chuck remained, as he says, "the shy kid who never excelled at anything in school."

His marriage to Dianne helped him express himself. His service in the Air Force gave him something else. Stationed in Korea, he learned karate. On his return to the States, he gave lessons and in 1968 won the first of his six consecutive World Middleweight Karate championships. Pupil Steve McQueen pushed him to try acting. In 1972 Norris did a fight scene with Bruce Lee in Return of the Dragon. In 1977 Norris made his debut as a star in Breaker! Breaker! Since then he's been lucratively flailing his feet on flicks whose titles (Good Guys Wear Black, Forced Vengeance, etc.) say it all.

Now Norris wants to branch out—if not into Dustin Hoffman territory, then at least into Eastwood's. Norris will no longer be photographed in martial arts poses. "I've worked so hard to get rid of that karate image," he says, wiping the sweat from his brow. And if the public ultimately rejects the gentler Chuck, he'll just go home to his family. Says Dianne: "We're not Hollywood people."

When the director calls him back to the set, Norris looks relieved. Jawing about his work is much harder than doing it. The treacherous swamp buggies await. The easy stuff.

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