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CHiPs: Motorcycle Cops Ponch And Jon, Stories And Facts

Entertainment | September 15, 2020

Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox on 'CHiPs.' Source: IMDB

The TV police drama CHiPs starred Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as Ponch and Jon. The series combined the adventure and intrigue of traditional cop shows with the lighthearted tone of a buddy movie, as the two California Highway Patrol cops encountered some serious emergencies, but more often found themselves in comedic scenarios, often in the same episode. Like any good '70s show, CHiPs featured plenty of celebrity guest performers (Leif Garrett, Cassandra Peterson, Billy Barty) and silly plot devices (chimpanzee, robot). 

Off camera, the two actors weren't quite buddies, both suffered motorcycle accidents, and both bailed on the show for professional reasons, with Wilcox's departure prior to season six more or less killing CHiPs. It was a wild, and mostly fun ride -- while it lasted.

Hard to believe these smiling face didn’t get along. (bustle)

In the ’70s, police dramas outnumbered the total number of channels available. From Adam-12 to Columbo to Kojak, people wanted to see their hero clean up the streets. Thankfully, at least one person thought we should take this in a different direction and CHiPs was born. Unlike other cop shows, Frank “Ponch” Poncherello and Jon Baker weren’t there to take down corruption and gangs but sort out fender benders and corral speeders. The stakes were low but the laughs came fast and furious. Amazingly, CHiPs almost never got off the ground. It debuted to “dreadful” reviews but a time switch kicked the iconic show into high gear. 

Erick Estrada’s Wild CHiPs Ride

The first and only highway patrol sex icon. (pinterest)

No one on CHiPs saw their lives change more than Erick Estrada who played the “Ponch.” Not only did he become the first highway patrol sex symbol and very famous but just about every aspect of his personal life changed forever. First, prior to CHiPs he did not own a motorcycle license; in fact, he admitted to never having ridden a motorcycle. To prepare he took an intensive course from a police academy expert. The training paid off but Estrada still took a nasty spill in ‘79 and was critically injured. According to reports he flew over the handlebars and hit a parked car chest first. Then, to top it off the motorcycle landed on him.

One of the first positively portrayed Latinos on television broke eight ribs, his sternum, collarbone, and wrist. They actually filmed scenes from his hospital bed, as the show must go on. MGM gifted him a $100,000 Rolls Royce Corniche when he returned to filming. Finally, Estrada actually became a police officer. First, in Virginia and then Indiana. Today, he works for the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Talk about a job changing your life.

Poncherello And Baker Did Not Get Along In Real Life

A light hearted look at police work. (amazon)

On screen, “Ponch” would have laid his bike down for John and vice versa. In real life, Estrada and Larry Wilcox couldn’t stand each other. Wilcox despised why Estrada was hired in the first place, “I thought it was asinine to pick someone just for being photogenic. Erik and I are just totally different human beings, and I can't get a good relationship going.” Apparently Estrada’s oversized ego rubbed Wilcox the wrong way. Wilcox couldn’t even give Estrada the injury limelight. A year after Erik’s accident, Wilcox flipped his motorcycle and suffered a concussion.

Both Stars Came And Went

Jenner’s 7 episode run turned heads. (famefocus)

Since the two biggest stars on the show failed to get along, you can only imagine the tension on set. Estrada bailed on season five due to a contract dispute. Scrambling, producers hired Olympian Bruce Jenner, who is now Caitlyn Jenner. They hired the decathlete to play Officer Steve MacLeish for seven episodes thanks to his motorcycle skills and for the publicity, as he was a celebrity for winning Olympic gold and fresh off the Wheaties cereal box. MacLeish slowly disappeared when Estrada’s contract was settled.

Of course, not to be outdone, Wilcox also left the show prior to the final season. Unfortunately, fans of the show didn't love his replacement, Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson, played by Tom Reilly. Things got much worse when Reilly was arrested for suspected DUI. The actual California Patrol threatened to bar the show from using their badge and other images, which was why his role was reduced. According to some accounts, it was Estrada who pushed for Wilcox’s removal from the show. Ironically enough, Estrada also feuded with Tom Riley in their only season together. 

People Can’t Get Enough CHiPs

A cast for the ages. (pinterest)

In its six season run, CHiPs set the blueprint for movies like Super Troopers and shows like Reno 911!. They almost never pulled their guns and portrayed police in a helpful, humorous, and endearing way. Jon Baker was also one of the first Vietnam vets to be depicted positively. In 1998, TNT gave the people what they wanted with CHiPs '99, a movie that only took 17 days to shoot. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2017 Warner Bros. tapped Michael Peña and Dax Shepherd for another reboot, which failed to rekindle the nostalgia of old. Some classics just weren’t meant to be remade. 

Tags: Caitlyn Jenner | CHiPs | Erik Estrada | Larry Wilcox | Police | TV In The 1970s

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!