CHiPs: Cops on Cycles

Cops on Cycles

by Erik Arneson

Sept. 15, 1977 – July 17, 1983

  • Erik Estrada as Officer Francis Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello
  • Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon A. Baker
  • Robert Pine as Sgt. Joseph Getraer
  • Brianne Leary as Officer Sindy Cahill
  • Randi Oakes as Officer Bonnie Clark
  • Michael Dorn as Officer Jebediah Turner

If we learned anything from the six-year run of “CHiPs” on NBC, it was that a lot of cars get stolen in California. The pilot episode centered on the California Highway Patrol’s effort to thwart a gang of sports car thieves, and similar plots cropped up season after season.

In fact, “CHiPs ’99,” a reunion movie which aired on TNT in October 1998, reunited Officers “Ponch” Poncherello and Jon Baker to break up yet another car-theft ring. It’s enough to make you wonder whether anyone in California still has their own car.

Despite being burdened with thin plots and often thinner dialogue, “CHiPs” climbed as high as 18 in the ratings, a position it enjoyed during its third season. Much of the show’s success should be attributed to the appeal of its congenial co-stars.

Five years after portraying a hood in Pat Boone’s “The Cross and the Switchblade,” Erik Estrada was perfectly cast as Ponch. With his happy-go-lucky demeanor and friendly smile, Ponch had a way with the citizens of greater Los Angeles — especially those of the female persuasion.

Although his role on “CHiPs” made Estrada an icon in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it did little for his later career. Since “CHiPs” stopped production, Estrada has been mired in movies with titles like “Twisted Justice,” “Caged Fury” and “Panic in the Skies!” His best success was found playing the romantic lead on a Spanish-language soap opera.

As Ponch’s partner, Officer Jon Baker, Larry Wilcox played a role that wasn’t far from reality. Both Wilcox and Baker grew up in Wyoming, and both served in Vietnam. Baker was more experienced than his partner, and his cool demeanor often served to calm the fiery Poncherello. In the post-“CHiPs” era, Wilcox landed sporadic roles, mostly in television movies. He and Estrada both appeared in 1995’s “Loaded Weapon I” in a scene spoofing their “CHiPs” roles.

The supporting cast included Robert Pine as Sgt. Joseph Getraer, Brianne Leary as Officer Sindy Cahill, Randi Oakes as Officer Bonnie Clark, and Michael Dorn as Officer Jebediah Turner. With the exception of Dorn, who currently stars as Worf in various “Star Trek” series and movies, none was able to use “CHiPs” as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Dorn also was one of the few not to appear in the “CHiPs ’99” reunion movie. That film included a scene that was extremely rare on the original series: Ponch and Jon pull their guns on a suspect. Director Jon Cassar remembers that cop shows in the ’70s were more innocent than today’s counterparts. “Life is a little different,” he understated during an interview about “CHiPs ’99.”

Given the lack of guns, it’s not surprising that “CHiPs” may have produced fewer corpses over its run than any other cop show that enjoyed even modest success. Over 139 episodes, only 19 people died — less than one per seven episodes. Of the deaths, 11 were the result of a single automobile crash. Only two were attributed to premeditated murder.

Typically, CHP officers handle traffic violations and investigate crashes. And, of course, the “CHiPs” crew tackled auto theft. In one episode, things got personal as Ponch’s Firebird was stolen. On another occasion, Jon’s car was targeted by thieves who were trained by an ex-CHP officer.

“CHiPs ’99” also added an element unthinkable in the original series: Ponch and Jon are married. A regular part of the “CHiPs” experience was seeing Ponch hit on, and be hit upon by, the beautiful women who always seemed to get into car-related trouble. The duo once pulled over a van carrying 20 L.A. Rams cheerleaders.

Over the course of six seasons, without murder as a regular plot element, Ponch and Jon found themselves in some unusual circumstances. Nothing, it sometimes seemed, was beyond their abilities. They helped a woman give birth in a disco, escorted a Hungarian motorcycle star who turned out to be a truck thief, and chased a “supercycle” into the L.A. Coliseum. Their stunt skills were occasionally stretched to the limit, as Ponch leaped from a helicopter to the top of a speeding truck, and Jon jumped his motorcycle through a wall of flames.

All that action requires lots of money, and any look at “CHiPs” history would be incomplete without mentioning two fund-raisers: the “First-Ever Roller Disco Beauty Contest” and the “Great 5K Star Race.” Opening season three, “Roller Disco” was a two-part episode featuring more than a dozen stars like George Peppard, Dana Plato, Cindy Williams, Tina Louise and Vic Tayback.

Although it sounds absurd, “Roller Disco” must have succeeded on some level, because the next season featured the “Star Race,” another star-studded — think Milton Berle, Chuck Woolery, Dick Van Patten and Todd Bridges — two-part episode.

By the fifth season, “CHiPs” was running out of steam. Two season five episodes were designed to introduce spin-offs; both failed. One, “Mitchell & Woods,” was to have featured two female police officers. The other, “Force Seven,” included a law enforcement team trained in the martial arts.

Also during season five, Estrada held out for several weeks in a contract dispute and was temporarily replaced by Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, who played Officer Steve McLeish. That move foreshadowed a major cast change for the final season — Wilcox’s departure and Tom Reilly’s arrival as Officer Bobby Nelson.

“CHiPs” won’t make many lists of the all-time best cop shows. It regularly crossed the line from drama to comedy, often unintentionally. But “CHiPs” wasn’t supposed to be a serious drama. It was mainly light-hearted fun, and the stars and audience both understood and appreciated it on that level.

The show may have had one serious side-effect: executive producer Rick Rosner credits it with saving the CHP motorcycle program. “The (real-life) CHP was going to phase out motor(cycle)s because they considered them highly dangerous and the insurance was very expensive,” he said. “Then along comes ‘CHiPs’ and … suddenly they’re getting applicants who want to come to California to join the Highway Patrol to ride motors.”


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