Chuck Norris, the Pope and Me
An actor whose credits include Top Gun and Die Hard, he now co-stars with Chuck Norris on TV's “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He attends daily Mass whenever he can during grueling production hours. He converted to the Catholic faith eight years ago and says it changed his life. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Karen Walker.
Walker: Where did you grow up and how did you enter the acting field?
Gilyard: I grew up as an Air Force brat. My family moved around a lot. I entered the U.S. Air Force Academy after high school, but left after a year. I couldn't afford to stay at Sterling College in Kansas, where I played wide receiver for the football team, so I went to work and eventually moved back to California. After a few years working in Long Beach, I enrolled in Cal State University, Long Beach, and signed up for an acting class.
Within a year I was accepted into a repertory company that performed children's plays on weekends. Sometimes we performed three shows a day at elementary schools and the long hours and hard work led to a role in the theater's evening presentation of “Bleacher Bums.”
I had to drop school, but after a year I got a big break with one line on NBC's “Diff'rent Strokes” television series. Later, I played Officer Ben Webster in the last season of “ChiPs,” a show about California highway patrolmen. Then I was Rolland Culp, opposite Jim Carrey on NBC's pilot “The Duck Factory.” In 1989, I landed the role as deputy police chief Conrad McMasters on the TV series “Matlock” for four years. It took me 10 years, but I eventually graduated from college too.
What are your current movie and television roles?
I've played Chuck Norris' partner in the television series “Walker, Texas Ranger “ for the entire 8-1/2 years the show has been running. We're just approaching 200 episodes. The series is rooted in the old westerns, but brought up-to-date. It takes seven working days to shoot the principal photography for one episode.
I just finished a movie role in a new film called “Left Behind,” which is based on the first of three books in the Tim LaHayes series on his portrayal of the end times. I play Bruce Barns, who is a pivotal character in the book. The film was shot on location in Toronto. The film soundtrack was released a few months ago at a huge Baptist church in Texas. They showed some film clips and contemporary Christian artists gave a live performance.
The television and movie industry has a rather wild reputation. How do you live your faith in the entertainment industry?
I can't speak for the industry, that's a dangerous question. But for this particular person, who's almost 45 years old and who's been graced with the opportunity to be Catholic, I can say it's almost an hourly struggle. I don't think my life is different from anyone else's.
Every time I walk out of my trailer door, I'm faced with secularism. I have to evaluate the situations I'm in as they relate to the script and to male-female relationships. I also have to evaluate how I'm taking care of myself mentally and spiritually so that I live as a healthy and spiritual person, just like anyone else.
I go to confession, Mass and holy days. We all have to make sure we get the “food” we need to do the work we need to do.
How did your conversion to the Catholic faith affect your life?
It's hard to capture all the things I've been through in 21 years, all of which have been in the acting business. I converted from Lutheranism eight years ago this past Christmas. My conversion is very critical to the next person, to the way I interact with the people I meet.
I figured out that my purpose in life is to cry the Gospel; to live it in my life and to strive to be the best Catholic Christian I can be. By this I don't mean standing on a stump on a street corner, unless the Holy Spirit inspires me to do that.
How do you “feed” your interior prayer life?
One of the things that grounds me is the Mass. I can find a Catholic church wherever I go. I try to go daily and feel like I'm missing something if I don't strive to go daily. It's not a reflection on anyone else, just where God and I are right now.
I'm really listening to what God is communicating to me. I really need the Eucharist. My spiritual director, Father John Dick, suggested I pick up the Liturgy of the Hours about eight months ago. I struggle with that, three times a day. But I love it when I hit a stride and can get more prayers in.
I'm like any Catholic who is striving. I try to do what the Church says we're supposed to do — pray the rosary, keep up with the saints being observed, and participate in the liturgical seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.
When you do what the Church says to do, it works.
You had the opportunity to visit with the Pope during the Jubilee Year. What was your experience?
I'm still numb from it. It makes me look at Mondays a lot differently, since we met the Holy Father on a Monday.
I was on a 10-day trip to Italy this past summer with a priest — who is my spiritual director — and a seminarian. We saw the [eucharistic] miracle at Lanciano [near Rome], [the shrine of] Padre Pio, Assisi and other holy places.
Upon returning to our room in Rome, after visiting Assisi, we received a note confirming that we would be able to attend morning Mass [with the Pope]. We were overjoyed and just dropped to our knees and thanked God. The experience was awesome. We got to kiss his hands; he said “good morning.”
We hear talk about the Holy Father being so frail. But these comments are like a Sunday couch-potato quarterback commenting on a game. The Holy Father is as sharp as a tack. We are so concerned about our bodies that we think that's the going deal. But I'm not worried at all. The Holy Father is doing just fine. He's right where God wants him.
What advice would you have for other Catholics in living their faith more fully?
I strive not to give advice unless people ask for it. I've found that one of the things I have to battle with is this human arrogance we have to not allow God to be God. We put him in a box, give him a size we think is right and then we speak for him.
That's not right!
Karen Walker writes from San Juan Capistrano, California.
He played Conrad McMasters in the series “Matlock” for five seasons, has also appeared in the series “Diff'rent Strokes” and “CHiPS.” Among the feature films in which he has co-starred are Top Gun and Die Hard.
For his role in “Walker, Texas Ranger,” he won an NAACP Image Award in the year 2000 as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. A real-life cowboy, he devotes much of his free time to riding and roping in celebrity rodeos to benefit various children's charities. He is honorary chairman of and celebrity spokesman for Cowboys for Kids and also serves on the board of directors of the Children's Organ Transplant Association.
Gilyard has two children and divides his time between Dallas and Rancho Mirage, Calif.
- January 21-27, 2001