There was a time in the mid-to-late 2000’s when Chuck Norris was simply the most unavoidable man on the entire internet. He was the subject of a ubiquitous running joke where the conceit was that Chuck Norris was the coolest and best man in the world. Lines like “Once a cobra bit Chuck Norris’ leg; after five days of excruciating pain, the cobra died,” are still popular among the segment of the population who still use the internet like it’s 2009, making jokes about loving epic bacon to this very day.
One can assume that, because of this foundational meme, there’s a segment of the younger population today who actually have no idea that Chuck Norris is an actor. Or, even if they know that, even fewer know that he was a martial arts champion who went on to become an actor later in life. There’s a reason Chuck Norris became the internet avatar of coolness; this is an objectively extremely cool career path. He honed his martial arts skills as a member of the Air Force on a base in South Korea, and went on to star in some of the best and dumbest action movies produced all around the world, even earning a spot in the proverbial Action Movie All-Star Game that was “The Expendables” franchise.
Of course, the origin of Norris’ acting career is a fittingly cool story in itself, involving receiving advice from another of the Mount Rushmore of cool actors, Steve McQueen. He didn’t become the man, the myth, the legend, overnight.
A worthy fighter
An important thing to remember is just how skilled a martial artist Chuck Norris was. His real life feats don’t quite reach the levels his meme may suggest, but Norris was one of the best in the world at what he did. He was not only a world karate champion, a title he held and defended for six years, but an expert in many different fighting styles, including tang soo do, taekwondo, judo, and jiu jitsu. He even developed a fighting style of his own, chun kuk do, or as it’s sometimes known, “the Chuck Norris System.” Needless to say, Norris was extremely respected as both a fighter and a trainer.
He was so respected, in fact, that when bonafide movie star Steve McQueen was looking to train in martial arts, he sought Norris out as his teacher. Norris, who was already a fan of McQueen’s work, was happy to oblige, and the two became friends through their training. Norris had retired from in-ring competition years earlier, and he was becoming a bit complacent running his martial arts schools, which struggled a bit financially. McQueen suggested to Norris that he get into acting, despite Norris’ complete lack of experience. At first, Norris was skeptical.
“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,” said Norris in a Los Angeles Times interview.
Making the jump
Norris experienced a bit of self-doubt (a more annoying writer would make a joke about it being ridiculous for Chuck Norris to experience any amount of self-doubt, but I’m better than that). But McQueen reminded him of the positive thinking mindset that Norris himself had touted for years. “From training myself over the years to think positively and to realize that if there was a will there was a way,” said Norris in the same LA Times interview. “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.”
Norris did just that. He was much more of an on-screen persona than a classical actor, taking on roles that were tailored to his real-life skillset and personality such as “martial artist” or “cool tough guy.” While he struck some gold with an early role as a martial artist opposite Bruce Lee in “The Way of the Dragon,” his acting career didn’t take off immediately, with his first major film success being 1982’s “Lone Wolf McQuade.”
Norris went on to have great success as an action star, starring in countless films and the television series “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Norris’ successful career can be credited to the advice of Steve McQueen and his willingness to take a shot in the dark at his lowest time financially. “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,” said Norris, a man now immortalized by not only his films, but cheesy internet jokes.