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''Walker, Texas Ranger'' fights criticism

”Walker, Texas Ranger” fights criticism — Chuck Norris talks about the shows struggle to appeal to women

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On the Walker, Texas Ranger set in the pin-dot town of Ovilla, Tex., Chuck Norris is getting ready for action. Is he limbering up his karate-kicking leg? Strapping on his holster? Loading up his six-gun?

Nope, try coating his lips with Carmex, smearing on some Chap Stick, and freshening his breath with Binaca. Norris is preparing to pucker up and plant one on guest star Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who plays the country-western cutie Walker is protecting from her abusive ex-husband — and falling head over spurs for in the process.

It’s not the type of scene you’d expect from the series ranked by the Center for Media and Public Affairs as the third most violent on network TV (after The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and seaQuest DSV). But Walker, which casts the martial-arts-champ-turned- B-movie-superstar (Code of Silence, the Missing in Action trilogy) as modern-day Lone Star lawman Cordell Walker, is gunning for a new audience. In its first full season, the CBS show has solid ratings (46th out of 134 shows) given its deadly time slot (Saturdays at 10 p.m.). Yet unlike its Saturday CBS cousin, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Walker hasn’t broken out as a mainstream hit.

”Our weakness is young women, which is the Dr. Quinn audience. As the show runs, we’ll get into episodes that deal with situations that young women would like to see, like this one here,” Norris says, relaxing between smooches in the white house 35 miles southwest of Dallas that doubles as Walker’s ranch. (A divorced father of three and grandfather of one, Norris lives with his girlfriend, interior designer Monica Hall, on a ranch three hours south of Dallas in Navasota.)

Don’t worry about Walker’s becoming a wimp, though. ”We have to walk a very fine line,” says co-executive producer John Ashley (The A-Team). ”If we have Chuck doing love scenes and drawing-room comedy, then the action fans will be disappointed. We can’t be Dr. Quinn any more than Dr. Quinn can be Walker.”

Walker draws its strength from young men (long the core crowd for Norris’ mayhem-heavy films), viewers over 50 (Norris himself just turned 54), and middle Americans (the show may benefit from its 9 p.m. slot in the Central time zone). ”The show does not do terribly well in New York, L.A., and San Francisco,” Ashley concedes. ”But in markets like St. Louis, Dallas, and Houston, it’s a (hit).”

One group Norris doesn’t think he’ll win over is critics, who have never been kind. (In 1985, Time called him ”the most successful really terrible actor since Audie Murphy.”) But Norris has a theory on why he’s never been acclaimed. ”I’ve been with an independent (Cannon Pictures) for years, and critics aren’t afraid of them. But they are afraid of Warner Bros.,” he says. ”I saw Under Siege. Nothing against (Steven) Seagal, but there’s a girl (Erika Eleniak) who comes bouncing out of a cake naked and becomes a female commando. If I did that, I’d get crucified by the critics. But because it was a Warner Bros. release, they didn’t say a word about it.”

Still, the knock that gets Norris the most worked up is that his show is gratuitously violent. ”There’s a lot of action, but it’s all done with a moral background,” he says resolutely. ”It’s justice fighting injustice. God knows we need more of that today.”

Norris had to defend Walker’s reputation when he joined attorney general Janet Reno on Peter Jennings’ ABC special Kids in the Crossfire: Violence in America last November. He claims he was invited to discuss his Kick Drugs Out of America Foundation, a Houston-based group designed to implement self-esteem-enhancing karate programs in public schools nationwide. Norris says he was surprised when Jennings introduced him as the most violent man on television.

”He was trying to say, ‘You’re responsible for all these problems kids have,”’ Norris says, shaking his head in disgust. ”I was very upset that they got me there under false pretenses. More than upset, I was pissed off.” (This is harsh language coming from a man who makes liberal use of jeepers and goshdang in everyday conversation.) According to ABC, Norris was told that the program would concentrate on violence in the media.

As you might imagine, Norris doesn’t care much for Reno and other current crusaders against TV violence. ”They’re trying to find a fall guy. They can’t focus on the real problems, because they’re so insurmountable,” he says, launching into a jeremiad worthy of his political idols, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. ”The crack in the family structure, the permissiveness in our schools, our families, our society — that’s the problem with kids today. There’s no discipline, no respect.”

Norris doesn’t believe his show should carry a violence warning (CBS has attached an advisory to Walker only twice — and the second time, according to Ashley, was due to a clerical error). ”NYPD Blue deals with a lot more violent structural concepts than I do,” Norris maintains. ”But I get labeled (for violence) and they don’t.”

And NYPD isn’t the worst offender, in Norris’ eyes. ”The news is much more violent than anything I could ever put on the screen. You see someone commit a crime and get off that’s not good for a kid to visualize that crime does pay,” he says. ”In our series, crime doesn’t pay. You commit a crime, Walker’s gonna get you.” Or at least he’ll get to make out with your ex-wife.

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