Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Among Champions at Walker, Texas Ranger

Martial Arts Professional magazine ran this story by Joe Lewis.

By Joe Lewis

For a brief period in the mid 1960s, Chuck Norris and I trained together as sparring partners. Later, we competed against each other in tournaments. Recently, after nearly 36 years since we first met, we acted together in an episode on his hit show Walker, Texas Ranger.

In the “Legends” segment, kickboxing champions Howard Jackson, Bill Wallace, Don Wilson, and I play our selves. We spar against four of the current generation kickboxing champions: Orlando Rivera, Jean-Claude Leuyer, Alex Gong, and Danny Steele. I believe this is the first time in history this many legitimate kickboxing champions has ever appeared in either the same television episode or feature film.

To be invited onto Chuck’s show would be a dream come true for any martial artist, and it was for me. We flew to Dallas, Texas first class. Chuck put us up in a five-star hotel. Most of the champions were paid more to do that show than they had ever been paid in any of their professional fights.

As we wandered onto the Walker set on January 30, the first day of shooting, I thought about the first time I met Chuck. I had just returned to America from Okinawa in late 1965. I was still in the Marine Corps. I spent almost two months in Los Angeles on leave looking for the best martial arts schools. I attempted to set up sparring sessions with Mike Stone, who had just retired and was the biggest name in karate competition at that time. When that didn’t work out, I visited the Nishiyama school to spar with Frank Smith, their best fighter. Mr. Nishiyama said I would have to train at his school for six months before I could spar with Frank Smith.

Chuck Norris was then an up-and-coming tournament star. When I heard about him, I phoned his school, and he welcomed me to come work out with him. The first time I met him, I respected him. His workouts were more intense than any one else’s that I had seen in Los Angeles. They reminded me of the hard training on Okinawa. Chuck hit hard and fast. When he threw a kick, he threw it like he meant it.

Chuck, who earned a tang soo do black belt in Korea, had also trained there in judo. If you got too close to him, he could throw you. That was unusual for a Korean stylist. He was the first top fighter, in my opinion, who balanced exceptional punching and kicking skills. I don’t remember anyone else from the early 60s who had Chuck’s balanced skills, conditioning, and tenacious will to train hard.

In those days I never told Chuck what I thought of him. That’s because the highest compliment I ever gave another martial artist was to ask him to be my sparring partner. And that’s the compliment I gave Chuck. We weren’t sparring partners for long, though, because we began competing against each other in tournaments. Martial arts magazines also pitted us against each other as good guy versus bad. They publicized Chuck Norris as the good guy in the white gi and me, Joe Lewis, the bad guy in the black kendo gi. My students didn’t like him, and his students didn’t like me. The publicized rivalry was another reason we stopped training together.

That first day on the Walker set, we watched the crew shoot other segments of the episode. I stood outside the courtroom set while Chuck played his role as Walker, and I remembered an incident where I gained insight into his character. It was 1975, several years after our last competition match. We worked out together at one of his schools on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Over lunch afterward, Chuck told me he had gotten involved in a bad business deal and was heavily in debt. But rather than declare bankruptcy, he was teaching eight to nine classes a day to save his name. He said he was dead tired every night when he went to bed. That day at lunch, I realized that Chuck was a man of integrity.

We kick boxers spent two days together on the Walker set. For me, it was fun being back on a film set working. I remember the first time I had appeared in a film. It was in 1969, when Bruce Lee hired several martial artists, including Chuck and me, to do a scene in the Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew. Although some of Chuck’s directors, such as Ted Post from his film Good Guys Wear Black, were friends with my acting coaches, and I had done scenes in films with some of Chuck’s producers, such as Frank Capra, Jr., I just never believed the opportunity for Chuck and me to work together would ever present itself again.

We kick boxers were impressed with all of Chuck’s people-- his limousine drivers, wardrobe people, script supervisors, directors, and stunt people. They treated us with courtesy and friendship, and they were genuine. There was none of the Hollywood ego I had seen in California.

Each of us received a complete script. We studied it and memorized our lines. After lunch the first day, Chuck’s fight choreographer took us to the set where we fought our matches. It was a boxing gym with a ring in the center and lockers along one wall. They asked us each to choreograph three five-to-six point fighting combinations with our partners. I was teamed up with 6’-4”, 230 pound heavyweight kickboxing champion Jean-Claude Leuyer.
I liked the way our sparring sequences were shot. We squared off against each other, and when the director, Chuck’s son Mike Norris, called “Action!” we simulated light sparring. Then the fight choreographer would say, “One,” and we would go through our first sequence of combinations. When he called “two” and “three,” we would go through those routines. So, it looked on set as if we were really sparring. As each pair of fighters took turns sparring, the remaining six stood on the apron of the ring outside the ropes, cheering our fellow fighters. We were the four early kick boxing champions against the current ones in a show-down sparring session.

In a film studio, one’s favorite memories are often the humorous ones. For instance, during filming of The Wrecking Crew, I had to throw a spinning hooking heel kick over Dean Martin’s head. I had to make sure I didn’t hit him, because he was insured for a lot of money. The first time I threw the kick at Dean, he ducked. My kick whipped over his head, accompanied by a loud tearing sound. In front of the entire crew, my pants split all down the crotch. The crew laughed. The director fumed when I had to go to the wardrobe trailer, take my pants off and wait for them to stitch them up. It held up the shoot. At the time it was embarrassing, but now it’s funny.

One of the humorous moments on the Walker set was a prank that the crew played on me. The cameramen took turns shooting each of us shadow fighting, as if we were up against a real opponent. They would use these sequences for tight shots and inter-cuts.

I was the last one to do my sequence. The other fighters had shot somewhere between 20 - 30 seconds of shadow fighting each. When it was my turn, I told the cameraman to get ready because I was quick and he might not be able to keep up with me. On hearing that, the cameraman and Mike decided to pull one over on me. Mike told Bill Wallace, Don Wilson, and Howard Jackson to keep cheering me on and to make sure that they didn’t stop until the sequence was over, because they were going to pull my leg.

When I began my shadow fighting, I was cocky. I pretended that I had knocked my opponent down, and I told him to get up. I moved side to side. I punched, kicked, bobbed, and weaved. I started to get tired, but Mike, the director, yelled at me to keep moving. He told the cameraman, “All right, now, move over there! Now move back over here!” I went on and on and on, and I knew my sequence was getting close to two or three minutes.

By then I was out of gas. I could hardly breathe. I thought, “Hah, ain’t no way in hell I’m going to stop in front of all these former champions, Chuck Norris and his son and the crew!” At that point, I heard laughter. Then I stopped. I laughed with them, but inside I was dead. The next day, I told Mike, “I got to shake your hand. You got me good yesterday, man. Very few people ever get me.”

I remember another humorous moment from the second day. The four legends, the cast, and Chuck were sitting ringside, having just watched the current champions defend their titles against the four current kick boxers. Some of the champions had never worked with dialogue before. It was funny to see a kick boxer, who is fearless in the ring, turn white and stammer when the camera comes in on a tight shot and the director yells, “Action!” As I sat there watching, I laughed to myself. I looked at Chuck, who seemed to be thinking, “My God! These guys can throw these four, five, and six point kicking combinations, but they can’t string four words together!”

The shoot was over all too quickly, and it was time to fly back to our respective homes. After Chuck and I shook hands and said goodbye, I thought again about our early times together. The first time I walked into his school, I could tell he wasn’t fake. There was no arrogance about him. He had no need to impress me with his rank or title or who he could beat or how fast he was or how hard he could kick. He did his talking in the ring, and no one can ever take that away from him.

Chuck’s personality has not changed since he became a movie star. He’s still the same Chuck from his fighting days. In a world of inflated ranks and titles, it is fitting that one of the few who deserves the honors does not need them.

Around April 2001, the studio will film the final episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Although CBS has canceled the show, our television screens will be graced with reruns for years to come. I was happy to have played a brief part in one of the final episodes and happy that, between Chuck Norris and me, the respect will remain mutual and the friendship everlasting.


Blogger Erik Mann said...

I was searching for blogs that had Dallas, TX in them and came across yours. I live in Dallas and have a self defense school. I like the posts on your blog, so I've bookmarked it to stop back by periodically. Take care.

October 29, 2005  

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