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
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."