14 Things You Might Not Know About CHiPs
By Jake Rossen
As counter-programming to the heavy police procedural dramas of the 1970s, NBC’s CHiPs—which premiered on September 15, 1977—took a lighter approach to law enforcement. Amenable California Highway Patrol officers Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Erik Estrada) and Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) rarely encountered anything more serious than a freeway pileup; families enjoyed the low mortality rate, and the series developed into a solid merchandising and ratings success. In honor of the series' 40th anniversary, cruise through 14 facts about co-star turmoil, off-screen accidents, and why your ChiPs toys had a tendency to turn toxic.
1. CAITLYN JENNER ONCE REPLACED ERIK ESTRADA.
When Estrada left the series during the beginning of its fifth season over a salary dispute, producers hired Olympian Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner to replace him: the athlete, who was already working for NBC Sports as a commentator, also happened to be an experienced motorcyclist. When Estrada came to an agreement with MGM and returned to work, Jenner’s character slowly evaporated from the series, lasting just seven episodes in total.
2. ERIK ESTRADA AND LARRY WILCOX DID NOT GET ALONG.
Onscreen, co-stars Estrada and Wilcox had each other’s backs. Off-camera? Different story. When Wilcox got married in 1980, he told People magazine he made a point of not inviting Estrada and noted the two had argued ever since the show began. "I thought it was asinine to pick someone just for being photogenic," he said of Estrada’s casting. “Erik and I are just totally different human beings, and I can't get a good relationship going." Describing it as an “ego problem,” Wilcox said Estrada was not his “best chum” and “never will be.”
3. THE COPS ALMOST NEVER DREW THEIR GUNS.
For a cop show, CHiPs had a pretty conservative approach to ammunition. According to some fan tallies, a gun was drawn by police in just three out of 139 episodes—and never by Estrada or Wilcox. Estrada told ABC News that the show’s 8 p.m. family time slot contributed to the pacifistic approach. “It was about helping pedestrians, people in trouble, the young kids who are straying,” he said.
4. ESTRADA WAS BADLY HURT DOING A STUNT.
Unlike many of the actors working in primetime today, Estrada insisted on doing many of his own motorcycle stunts. While shooting a 1979 episode, the actor was critically injured after he lost control of his bike while cruising around for a scene. Braking abruptly, he flew into a parked car chest-first, the bike landing on top of him; he broke eight ribs, his sternum, his collarbone, and his wrist. When he returned to work, MGM gifted him with a $100,000 Rolls Royce Corniche. (Not to be outdone, Wilcox flipped his motorcycle the following year and suffered a concussion.)
5. WILCOX LEFT THE SHOW.
With the tension between Wilcox and Estrada unresolved, Wilcox elected to leave the show just as it was beginning its sixth and final season. The character of Baker was replaced with Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson (Tom Reilly), with the switch prompting a decline in ratings. Reilly made news in December of 1982 when United Press International reported he was arrested by actual motorcycle officers for suspicion of driving while under the influence of drugs. Reilly pled innocent to the charges, his role was reduced, and the series was eventually canceled.
6. ESTRADA INSPIRED THE VILLAGE PEOPLE COP.
Though he didn’t get top billing in the show, Estrada’s blindingly-white smile and good looks quickly became a pop culture staple. According to TV Guide, Estrada’s appearance had some major influence over Victor Willis of the Village People: Willis took notice of his extra-tight patrol uniform and adopted it for his role as the “cop” in the musical group.
7. PONCH WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ITALIAN.
The role of Frank Poncherello was originally Poncherelli; producers envisioned an Italian character. They changed their minds when Estrada auditioned, possibly out of abject fear: Estrada punched a door during the meeting, frustrated he had flubbed a line.
8. IT WAS ALMOST CANCELED IN ITS FIRST SEASON.
Critics and media observers were indelicate in describing CHiPs’s ratings performance during its first season in 1977 to 1978, describing it as “dreadful.” The show’s fortunes improved in season two, when NBC moved it from Thursdays to Saturdays and where it began winning its time slot.
9. THE TITLE FOR SYNDICATION MADE NO SENSE.
After completing five seasons, CHiPs was sold into syndication in the fall of 1982. To help avoid viewer confusion between reruns and new episodes, MGM re-titled it CHiPs Patrol. This was redundant, as “CHP” is an acronym for “California Highway Patrol,” making the complete series name California Highway Patrol Patrol.
10. THE TOYS WEREN’T BUILT TO LAST.
Mego toy company was quick to pounce on the popularity of the series, offering 8-inch action figures and vehicles. Their CHiPs products were said to have reused a lot of molds from other lines—Fonzie’s motorcycle, Klingon boots from Star Trek—but the real disappointment came when the Ponch and Jon figures sat on shelves for too long. Owing to Mego’s uneven quality control, the plastic used for the bodies seemed to react poorly with the plastic on the packaging, tinting their heads from flesh-colored to a sickly gray. Collectors call it “zombie disease” and it’s reputed to be potentially toxic.
11. WILCOX GOT BUSTED.
In 2010, media had a delightful time with the irony of Wilcox finding himself on the other side of the law: The actor was arrested and charged with securities fraud. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Wilcox had unwittingly solicited kickbacks to fund his mining business from an undercover FBI agent in 2009. To help avoid serious repercussions, Wilcox wore a wire for authorities to nab two others involved in the scheme. In 2011, a judge sentenced him to three years of probation.
12. A REUNION MOVIE HAPPENED IN 1998.
CHiPs ’99 picked up the adventures of our asphalt-hugging heroes more than 15 years after the series went off the air. Wilcox returned to join Estrada in combating an automobile hijacking ring, with a subplot involving a dog obstinately pooping in Jon’s yard. The movie aired on TNT in October 1998; by all accounts, the co-stars got along this time. (Then again, the project took just 17 days to shoot.)
13. IT GOT A BIG-SCREEN REBOOT IN EARLY 2017.
Warner Bros. was betting big on nostalgia for the series when the studio enlisted Dax Shepard to write, direct and co-star in a relatively straight-faced adaptation. Previously, Wilmer Valderrama (That ‘70s Show) had allegedly earned an informal commitment to play Ponch after showing up to a studio meeting in a California motorcycle cop uniform and saying, “Funny, right?" But Michael Peña ended up playing the role.
14. ESTRADA BECAME A REAL COP.
Estrada had been quoted as saying his original intention was to become a police officer before he got into acting. That didn’t quite work out, but he eventually got his chance. In 2006, Estrada became a reserve officer for Muncie, Indiana’s police force. Originally deputized for a reality series, he returned in 2008 to work a night patrol shift. He currently works for the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.