12.06.09

Chuck Norris Turns 70

The tough guy begins his eighth decade on Wednesday. Sean Macaulay on the strange afterlife of the worst actor in action.

It's official. Chuck Norris can tame anything, even his own meme. The iconic action star's new book, The Official Chuck Norris Fact Book, is Norris’ personal selection of Internet-spawned “facts” about himself, and it's already the bestselling martial arts book in the country. An unofficial Chuck Norris fact book— The Truth About Chuck Norris: 400 Facts About the World's Greatest Human—did have the nerve to appear two years ago, but as any student of the natural order will know, Chuck Norris doesn't just stand atop the natural order, he decides the natural order. Of everything. For all recorded time. Starting with unsanctioned fact books.

The so-called Cult of Chuck Norris, which sprang to life online in 2005, is the semi-ironic worship of the tough guy—who turns 70 on Wednesday. His cinematic output includes such gems as Forced Vengeance and Silent Rage.

The basic plot of all his movies can be found in the tagline for his ’70s exploitation film, Breaker, Breaker: “A town without justice. A hero without fear.” You will search for subtext in vain.

The cult's main act of worship is the composing “badass facts” celebrating its idol's invincibility. Take these, from “ The Original Chuck Norris Fact Generator”:

  • Chuck Norris puts the laughter in manslaughter.
  • Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
  • Chuck Norris doesn't cheat death. He wins fair and square.
  • When Chuck Norris enters a room, he doesn't turn the lights on, he turns the dark off.

Lean narrative thrust, then, is the echt Norris mode; anything overly reflective or elaborate rings false. And ringing false is the cardinal sin of the Chuck Norris universe.

My old neighbor in Los Angeles wrote 26 episodes of Norris's long-running '90s TV show, Walker, Texas Ranger. The show was mercilessly teased by Conan O'Brien for its clunky mix of sanitized action and square-jawed morality. But it was a Heartland phenomenon, running for 196 episodes.

My neighbor offered this insight into its popularity by comparing Norris to the other action stars of his ilk: "Chuck has the bona fides. Arnold won bodybuilding competitions. Willis was a barman. Stallone went to a private school in Switzerland. Only Chuck won real fights. He was a professional karate champion. He invented his own martial arts style [Chun Kuk Do]. He trained with Bruce Lee."

Norris is certainly the least affected of '80s action heroes. A self-willed marvel, he was not even a natural athlete or much of an extrovert. "I am a prime example that nothing is impossible," he wrote in his memoirs, Against All Odds. Abandoned by an alcoholic father, he served in the Air Force and discovered martial arts while stationed in Korea. He even compiled his own Moses-size personal code to live by:

“1) I will develop myself to the maximum of my potential in all ways.”

And: “10) I will remain highly goal-oriented throughout my life because that positive attitude helps my family, my country and myself.”

Offscreen, he is the Nascar set's totemic badass, the God-fearing patriot who walks the walk. He endorsed Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential race, and appeared with him often. He runs numerous charities and regularly visits U.S. troops, who acclaim him as one of their own. (He lost a brother in Vietnam.)

Which is not to say he's a good actor. In fact, he's far and away the worst actor to enter the action star pantheon—and that includes Jean-Claude Van Damme and his Cajun accent in Hard Target. But Norris is so inviolably the real thing that even his mind-boggling thespian stiffness works as a badge of pride. Unlike, say, Hulk Hogan, it doesn't feel like he's trying to act and doing it badly. It feels like he's just not impressed enough by acting to make any extra effort.

It is no coincidence Norris came to fame in the '80s. He was the humble option among the explosion of triumphalist quipping Reaganite action heroes—constitutionally positive, unwaveringly secure. Norris’ onscreen persona is entirely free of moral ambiguity or inner struggle. The basic plot of all his movies can be found in the tagline for his '70s exploitation film, Breaker, Breaker: "A town without justice. A hero without fear." You will search for subtext in vain.

Even his characters' names are unyieldingly, relentlessly whitebread: Josh Randall, Scott James, John David Dawes, Sean Kane, Dan Stevens, Matt Logan, Matt Hunter, Scott McCoy, Cordell Walker, John Shepherd.

The closest thing to a paradox in the Norris canon is the title of his 1978 effort, Good Guys Wear Black. By way of compensation, all his enemies are cackling sadists and knife-licking rapists—snarling pantomimes of pure evil. And they all die lavishly (roundhouse kick, shattered jaw), but only after being given a final chance to surrender.

Three years ago, Norris read his favorite Chuck Norris facts aloud on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. (No. 1 was "They once tried to carve Chuck Norris' face into Mount Rushmore, but the granite wasn't hard enough for his beard.")

But the following year, when the unofficial fact book strayed into areas such as evolution and sexual prowess, he intervened and sued. (Norris believes in creationism and monogamy. Or rather creationism and monogamy believe in Chuck Norris.) He later dropped the suit, which now looks like an act of compassion. The author of the book was a medical student and fan, whom Norris had previously found time to meet.

With his own book, Norris has emerged triumphant. The legend endures, the myth burns brighter than ever.

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Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil .