Since his first starring role in Breaker! Breaker!, critics have made light of the acting ability of Chuck Norris, something that he’s taken in stride, because what Chuck lacks in acting ability, he makes up for in hard work.
Chuck told The New York Times, “I was the worst thing in 50 years. Well, I wasn’t good, but my feelings were hurt. I’m not trying to be Dustin Hoffman; I just want to project a strong positive hero image on the screen. I went to Steve McQueen, and he said, ‘In Good Guys you talk too much. Too much dialogue. Let the character actors lay out the plot. Then, when there’s something important to say, you say it, and people will listen. Anyway, you’ll get better as an actor. You should have seen me in The Blob.”
In These Fists Break Bricks, Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali share the story of how Norris went from a name in the world of martial arts to small parts in films* to suddenly ruling the box office of the 80s and the TV ratings of the 90s.
He convinced producer Al Belkin to put up $700,000 by telling him, “There’s four million karate people in America. They all know who I am. And if only half of them go to the movie, that’s a $6 million gross on a $1 million budget.” Belkin signed onto Good Guys Wear Black (1978), and told his staff that if it didn’t work out, they’d all be out of a job. It didn’t work out. No one would release the finished film, so Belkin rented out theaters and four-walled it across America. Norris toured relentlessly to promote his film. The result $18 million at the box office.
In fact, Hendrix went even further when we interviewed him and asked about his feelings on Norris:
Grady: One of the things I really admire is how hard he works because acting does not come easy to him. He’s gone on record saying that it took him a really long time to get it. But he keeps doing the physical stuff on screen, even though he had a hard time. And you know, his first movie, no one wanted to make a movie with him. But he did it and he hit the road for almost a year and made it a big movie. Second movie, the exact same issue and the exact same hard work. Third movie and so on, until he gets the big studio contract and he walked out because he didn’t want to do the really violent stuff. He wanted young kids to see his movies because he feels like it’s good for them.
The film that he chose for his second movie takes place in the cynical world of the 70s. United States Senator Conrad Morgan (James Franciscus) made a deal to end the war with the North Vietnamese. If Yen will release several CIA agents, Morgan will take out the Black Tigers, a CIA assassination squad, who are sent to their deaths. Only Major John T. Booker (Norris) and four of his men survive the massacre.
Five years later, Booker is a professor of political science and an enemy of the war. Yes, a movie that posits that Chuck can debate the finer points of geopolitics and can romance Anne Archer. Then again, Chuck was quoted saying, “My country wasn’t built on sacrificing people to expedite principles.”
However, the surviving Black Tigers are being killed, as Morgan is to become Secretary of State and the North Vietnamese begin to blackmail him. He thinks that Chuck and his friends are expendable, but we know what happens when Chuck gets upset.
Chuck has some solid support from actors as diverse as Dana Andrews (yes, from the noir classic Laura) and Lloyd Haynes (Room 222) to Jim Backus (yes, Mr. Magoo). And no matter how bad he was in this movie, he was critic-proof.
When discussing how the movie was taken on an old school road show, Chuck would say, ” I traveled with them, opening from cities to hamlets, talking with folks and promoting the film any way I could. Many critics panned that film, but the public embraced it. They filled those theaters and launched my movie career.”
That’s why I love Chuck Norris. He’s not a creation of anyone but himself, someone who was willing to go in front of the MPAA and get the movie changed to a PG rating. And his character in this is supposedly who he is playing when he shows up in The Expendables 2.
And oh yeah — this was directed by Ted Post, so somehow he made a Planet of the Apes movie, a Dirty Harry movie, the giallo TV movie Five Desperate Women and, most essentially, The Baby. Good Guys Wear Black was written by Mark Medoff, who also wrote Children of a Lesser God and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, a fact that brings me incredible waves of joy.
*When Bruce Lee invited him to be in Way of the Dragon, Chuck asked of their fight, “Who gets to win?” Bruce laughed and said, “I’m the star.”
You can watch this on Tubi.