He fell in love with martial arts while serving in Korea and was soon teaching Hollywood's elite. Student Steve McQueen encouraged him to act, and one of cinema's nicest tough guys was born.
The eldest of three sons, Chuck was born to Irish mother, Wilma and Cherokee Indian father, Ray Norris. His brothers are Wieland (1943 – 1970, killed in action in Vietnam) and the youngest Aaron Norris (born 1951).
Father Ray’s alcoholism lead to a divorce when Norris was only ten. He helped his mother raise his younger brothers and the family moved to Torrence, California, when Norris was 12-years-old. As a child, he was shy, not at all athletic, and a mediocre achiever at school. He was teased about his mixed ethnicity and he dreamed about being able to beat up his tormenters.
After his graduation from high school, Norris married his girlfriend Diane Holchek, in December 1958. They were divorced, thirty years later, in 1988 and have three children, Mike (born 1962), Dina (born 1964), and Eric (born 1965). Eric is now a famous stock car driver.
Shortly after marrying Diane, he joined the United States Air Force as a Military Policeman. He was sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he acquired his nickname ‘Chuck’ and soon became interested in martial arts. He began training in the Asian form of Tang Soo Do.
Upon his return to America, Norris continued to act as a Military Policeman, this time at March Air Force Base, California. He was discharged in August 1962, without ever having seen any combat. Norris then worked for Northrop Aviation but his passion for martial arts could not be quelled. He moonlighted as a karate instructor and two years later, found himself teaching full-time and running a number of martial arts schools. He taught the likes of the Osmonds, Priscilla Presley, Steve McQueen and his son Chad McQueen.
By 1966, Norris was almost unbeatable and 1968 saw him becoming the Professional World Full-Contact Middleweight Karate Champion, a title he held undefeated until his retirement from professional fighting, in 1974. In 1969, he won the Triple Crown for the highest number of tournament wins and was named by “Black Belt” magazine as Fighter of the Year.
In 1974, at the age of 34, Norris had not only been a champion for six years, he had established no less than 32 karate schools. His award list was impressive but he was hankering for more and decided to use his martial arts skills in the world of film. It was his friend Steve McQueen who had encouraged him to pursue an acting career, saying “if you can’t do anything else, there’s always acting”.
Norris had already dabbled in some acting. His film debut was an uncredited role in the Dean Martin film, 'The Wrecking Crew' (1969). A few years later, he was in 'Meng Long Guojiang' (1972) (also known as 'Fury of the Dragon'). In 1972, Norris met Bruce Lee, the icon of martial arts cinema, and played opposite him in 'Return of the Dragon' (1973). He continued appearing in high-kicking, low-dialogue roles, starting to achieve some fame and did a lot of work for the Cannon Studios.
His first starring role was in 'Breaker! Breaker!' (1977) and his box office ratings increased with subsequent films 'The Octagon' (1980), 'An Eye for an Eye' (1981), and 'Lone Wolf McQuade' (1983).
'Missing in Action' (1984), a Rambo-like film, was a success and Norris followed Sylvester Stallone’s lead, and made two follow-ups, 'Missing in Action II – the Beginning' (1985) and 'Braddock: Missing in Action III' (1988).
Norris was only to gain critical acceptance with his role in the urban cop film 'Code of Silence' (1985). It is believed that this role had originally been written for Clint Eastwood in his ‘Dirty Harry’ persona. Other notable Cannon studio films for Norris were 'The Delta Force' (1986) and 'Firewalker' (1986).
In 1988, Norris wrote his autobiography, 'The Secret of Inner Strength', which became a New York Times Best Seller. A few years later, he wrote 'The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems'.
By the end of the 1980s, Cannon Films were no longer prominent and Norris’ movie appeal had seemed to fade. 'Delta Force II: Operation Stranglehold' (1990) failed to cause a stir. Norris had reached his forties and was worried about his diminishing audience and the large number of younger actors muscling in on the action movie roles. With this in mind, he took on roles, ranging from the mean, blood-thirsty character in action crime thriller 'Hitman' (1991), to playing himself, coaching a young fan, in 'Sidekicks' (1993). He even cast his son, Mike, in 'Delta Force III' (1991). None of this improved his bankability, so Norris decided that television may be the answer.
His television debut was in the series 'Walker, Texas Ranger' (1993-present) and he became an executive producer of the show. CBS ran the show for eight years, after which it continued to run on other channels. On 16 October 2005, CBS premiered their Sunday night ‘Movie of the Week’ and it was 'Walker Texas Ranger: Trial by Fire' (2005). Despite the fact that it was not meant as a reunion movie, Norris reprised his role as Cordell Walker. He has indicated that future 'Walker Texas Ranger' ‘Movie of the Week’ projects are expected.
In the early to mid 1990s, Norris continued to make movies, 'The Hitman' (1991), 'Sidekicks' (1992), 'Hellbound' (1994), 'Top Dog' (1995) and 'Forest Warrior' (1996). He then took an extended break and concentrated more fully on television work and his series.
2003 found Norris turning once more to film, and often with his brother, Aaron, directing him. 'Bells of Innocence' (2003), 'Dodgeball (2004)', 'The Cutter' (2005) and 'The Contender' (2005) were to follow.
He is never idle, and with his huge variety of interests, as well as his love of speed, Norris became an offshore powerboat racer, winning the World Off Shore Powerboat championships in 1991. He set a new world record for racing a Scarab boat across the Great Lakes, 605 miles from Chicage to Detroit, in 12 hours and 8 minutes. In 1996, he became the first Westerner to earn an eighth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a much-esteemed honour in this 4,500 year Eastern tradition.
Curiously, he has achieved the status of a cult icon through the internet phenomenon known as ‘Chuck Norris Facts’. People claim he has almost super-human powers and attribute him with mock-heroic feats and characteristics. He finds this incredibly amusing and often turns up on television, parodying himself, especially on 'Late Night with Conan O’Brien'. The show has become extremely popular.
Norris married his second wife, Gina O’Kelley, on 28 November, 1998. They have two children, twins Dakota Alan and Danilee Kelly (born 30 August 2001). Norris is a born-again Christian and enjoys giving back to society. He works for a number of charities, including Funds for Kids, Veterans Administration National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans, and the United Make-A-Wish Foundation. He is particularly proud of KickStart, a non-profit organisation he created with help from President George Bush to help fight drugs and violence in schools.
Action-man, family man, religious man, movie star, television producer, internet super-hero, sports star and humanitarian, Norris wears many hats, all of which seem to fit rather well. He certainly doesn’t lack energy, drive and good will. Perhaps it can all be traced back to his childhood, which he described as downbeat, and when he was abandoned by his father and bullied by his fellow pupils. It may have been his bleak beginnings in life, which provided him with the determination to succeed, and to continue doing whatever he does with integrity and panache.