The ’70s and ’80s were a golden age for television in the United States, with many incredible shows that we still look back on fondly today. CHiPs, which aired on NBC from September 1977 to May 1983, was one of those shows.
Following the lives of motorcycle officers with the California Highway Patrol, the show ran for a whopping 139 episodes over the course of six seasons. Let’s find out more about how it was made and what members of the cast are doing today.
The Show’s Creator Had Law Enforcement Experience
Fans of the show will know that it was Rick Rosner who created CHiPs, but have you ever wondered how he got the idea for the show in the first place? Well, it all came from some real-life experiences he had while working in law enforcement.
Rick befriended a couple of Los Angeles County cops while doing a scuba training seminar. He later decided to become a reserve deputy with the LA County Sheriff’s Department. During a coffee break, he saw a couple of young California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers riding their motorcycles, and the idea for the show was born.
The Perfect Formula
The makers of CHiPs set out to make a show that offered a nice blend of both comedy and drama. It wasn’t easy to find that formula, and there were many other shows at the time that tried to mix serious action and drama with more lighthearted elements, with varying degrees of success.
Fortunately, CHiPs pulled it off in style, and every episode usually mixed serious issues such as criminals breaking into cars with a more humorous side story, like the time Harlan brought a stray dog into the office. Episodes almost always ended with a thrilling, climactic car chase scene, along with lots of fun stunts.
Filmed Almost Entirely in LA
Given that CHiPs is based in LA and centers on the adventures of the California Highway Patrol, you would expect the show to have been filmed in Los Angeles, and pretty much all of it was. In fact, every episode but one was filmed in Los Angeles.
The only time the CHiPs cast and crew went somewhere else to film was for the “Drive, Lady, Drive” episode. It involved some auto racing, so the crew went to Moreno Valley to film a few scenes at the Riverside International Raceway, which has since closed and been partly transformed into a shopping mall.
A Fascinating Filming Process
So how did the cast and crew film all those highway chase scenes and wild stunts within the Los Angeles city limits? Well, they had a pretty clever trick up their sleeve! They actually made use of sections of freeways in LA that had been built but not yet opened to the public.
For instance, during season one, most scenes were filmed at the intersection of I-210 and California State Route 2. For the next season, they used a section of I-210 a few miles farther west. Filming moved even farther west for the following scenes as new parts of the freeway were opened and built.
The Bikes and Cars
The vehicles used in CHiPs almost felt like part of the cast since they played such a big role in so many scenes and stories. And the show’s makers wanted to be authentic and accurate in the choices of vehicles they used. The bikes, for example, were genuine Kawasaki police motorcycles.
Even though Ford is credited as the show’s vehicle provider for most episodes, many brands of cars and trucks appeared throughout the show, including Dodge police cars the show actually purchased from a real police auction.
Larry Wilcox as Officer Jonathan Andrew Baker
It was very important that the lead roles in CHiPs be cast correctly. Without the right people playing the parts, the show could have been a disaster. Fortunately, the producers picked the perfect man to lead the way—Larry Wilcox as Officer Jon Baker.
Born in 1947 in San Diego, Wilcox had spent his youth working a range of jobs and then enlisted in the Marines before pursuing a career in acting. He made guest appearances on shows such as Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, and Fantasy Island before being cast in CHiPs.
Larry Wilcox These Days
After CHiPs, Wilcox started his own production company, called Wilcox Productions. It produced the very popular and successful HBO show The Ray Bradbury Theater, proving that Larry could work wonders behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.
Wilcox also made some acting appearances in The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, and an episode of 30 Rock in 2009. However, he has mostly stopped acting nowadays and enjoys racing cars and flying planes in his free time.
Erik Estrada as Officer Francis “Ponch” Poncherello
Starring alongside Larry Wilcox was Erik Estrada in the role of Officer Francis “Ponch” Poncherello. Born in 1949 in New York City, Estrada originally hoped to become a police officer but ended up getting into acting in the 1970s, making his big-screen debut in 1970.
He started off with the role of Nicky Cruz in The Cross and the Switchblade, going on to appear in other films such as The New Centurions. He made his move into TV with guest roles on shows such as Hawaii Five-O and then building up to his casting in CHiPs.
Erik Estrada These Days
So what’s Erik up to these days? Well, after CHiPs ended, he mainly appeared in low-budget movies for a while before bursting back onto the TV screen, but this time in Spanish rather than English. He appeared in the telenovela Dos mujeres, un camino, which became very popular in Mexico.
He has also guest-starred in a range of TV shows, from Scrubs to My Name Is Earl, as well as lending his voice to a range of animated shows. He also works as a reserve police officer and has been an activist against drug use.
Robert Pine as Sergeant Joseph “Joe” Getraer
Robert Pine was another iconic member of the CHiPs cast, playing the part of Sergeant Joe Getraer. Born in New York City in 1941, Pine attended Ohio Wesleyan University and moved to Hollywood in the early ’60s to live out his dream of becoming an actor.
He originally found himself appearing in Westerns since he knew how to ride horses quite well and was thus well-suited to cowboy roles. He was seen in the likes of Gunpoint, Journey to Shiloh, and One Little Indian. He also had several TV roles on shows such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke before joining CHiPs.
Robert Pine These Days
After CHiPs, Robert continued to be cast in show after show. He appeared in the likes of Lottery!, Dallas, Dynasty, Magnum, P.I., Matlock, and Murder, She Wrote. He continued his amazing TV career, taking on a wide variety of roles, from heroes to villains and everything from cops to senators.
Even as the new millennium arrived, Pine continued to star in episode after episode on shows such as Star Trek: Enterprise, 24, Six Feet Under, The Office, NCIS, and, most recently, Superstore and Charmed. Now in his 80s, Robert Pine has appeared in more than 400 TV episodes, making him one of the most prolific television actors of his generation.
Brodie Greer as Officer Barry “Bear” Baricza
Brodie Greer was another big part of the CHiPs cast, playing the part of Officer Barry “Bear” Baricza. Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1949, Greer studied at San Jose State University and was a respected football player, playing safety for the San Jose State Spartans.
After graduating, Brodie decided to try his hand at acting and pursued a career in show business. His first big role came on the classic TV soap opera Days of Our Lives. However, it was the part of Bear in CHiPs that really made him famous and turned him into a star. He appeared in more than 50 episodes of CHiPs during its run.
Brodie Greer These Days
Fans might be wondering what happened to Brodie after CHiPs since he didn’t get a lot of other TV roles like some of his fellow castmates. He did appear in a few films and shows in the ’80s, including Death Flash, Terror Squad, True Blood, and The Love Boat, but he mostly stopped acting and semi-retired in 2010.
Of course, he reprised his role of Bear in CHiPs ’99, but apart from that, he hasn’t done much acting in recent years. Instead, he’s been enjoying family life, coaching sports teams at middle schools and high schools in Carmel, California, and maintaining a lifelong friendship with his old CHiPs buddy, Erik Estrada.
Caitlyn Jenner as Officer Steve McLeish
Another interesting member of the CHiPs cast was Caitlyn Jenner, then known as Bruce Jenner. Born in New York in 1949, Jenner was a hugely successful athlete, winning the Olympic gold medal for the men’s decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Jenner became a spokesperson for the Wheaties brand breakfast cereal and started acting in the 1970s, appearing in the likes of America Alive! and Can’t Stop the Music. Jenner was cast as a guest star on CHiPs for the show’s 1981–82 season.
Caitlyn Jenner These Days
Jenner continued a TV career in the years after CHiPs, moving into reality TV with the launch of the famous reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Jenner also appeared in everything from Adam Sandler movies such as Jack and Jill to the TV game show Weakest Link.
Jenner came out as a trans woman in 2015, which was seen as an important moment for trans awareness and inclusion. Her private life has been the subject of much interest in the years since then, and she’s even delved into politics, running for governor of California in 2021.
Jenner was never set to appear on CHiPs, but the show’s producers found themselves in a serious situation while preparing to film the show’s fifth season in 1981. At the time, Erik Estrada was involved in a contract dispute over syndication profits and had gone on strike.
The show’s producers needed to act quickly and decisively, and, as the old saying goes, they knew “the show must go on.” With Estrada out of the running, they brought in Jenner to replace him as a new character. In the end, the Estrada dispute was settled, and he returned. Jenner was phased out of the show.
Bruce Penhall as Officer Bruce Nelson
Another cast member who was added to the show during the later years was Bruce Penhall as Officer Bruce Nelson. Penhall was a real-life motorcycle racer who had won the 1981 and 1982 Speedway World Championships. He clearly had incredible riding skills and was thus regarded as a good fit for the show.
The show’s writers even made an episode where Penhall’s character won the 1982 Speedway World Final, using real TV coverage of the event with fake commentary. Once the race ended, Penhall retired from riding to become a full-time CHiPs actor. He also acted in several films and shows, including The Love Boat.
Wilcox and Estrada Did Not Get Along
On screen, Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox seemed like the best of friends. They had awesome chemistry, and everyone wanted to be buddies with Jon and Ponch. However, what you might not know is that behind the scenes, the two leading men were not friends at all!
Even though they had excellent on-screen chemistry, Estrada and Wilcox were very different people and simply could not get along with one another. Wilcox, in particular, had a strong dislike of Estrada and didn’t even invite his co-star to his wedding in 1980 at the height of the show’s fame.
Wilcox Left the Show Because of Estrada
In the end, tensions between Wilcox and Estrada proved to be too much for one of them. Once the show wrapped up its fifth season, Wilcox decided that he’d had enough and didn’t want to do CHiPs anymore or spend another day working with Estrada.
He said he had tried to develop a relationship with Estrada, but the two were too different to ever be friends. So Wilcox was written out of the show and replaced by a new character—Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson.
The New Character Was Not Popular
It’s always a bad sign when big shows write one of their main characters out and try to bring in someone else to replace them. There are a few examples of this working out, but most of the time, fans end up feeling disappointed, and the show’s ratings start to decline.
That’s exactly what happened with CHiPs in its sixth and final season. The new character of Bobby “Hot Dog” Nelson, played by Thomas Michael Reilly III, was not well-received, and fans missed Larry Wilcox’s character. Many people stopped watching the show, which led to the eventual cancellation of CHiPs.
Erik Estrada Spent Time with Real CHiPs
Erik Estrada cannot be accused of not taking his role on CHiPs seriously. He was very focused on the show. In fact, he was so focused that he actually took the time to go on patrol with real California Highway Patrol officers to see how they worked.
Estrada wanted to make sure he knew as much about the CHP as possible and understood the sorts of things patrolmen did on a day-to-day basis. He used these experiences to make sure his acting was as accurate and authentic as possible.
Estrada Also Learned How to Ride
As well as hanging out with real CHP officers, Erik Estrada decided to volunteer for an intensive motorcycle riding course to learn how to ride a bike correctly. He needed it because he had never ridden a motorcycle before being cast on the show.
Since so many of the show’s scenes involved motorcycle riding, Estrada knew he had to learn this valuable skill, so he studied hard and tried his best. However, after finishing the course and learning the basics, he failed his test and didn’t actually have a license while the show was being made.
Respect for Vietnam Veterans
Several times throughout the show, references were made to the Vietnam War, and it was stated clearly that Larry Wilcox’s character, Jon Baker, had served in Vietnam. These days, there are plenty of fictional characters who are Vietnam vets, but at that time, it was quite rare.
CHiPs was actually one of the first shows to feature a Vietnam vet as a leading character and also show him in a positive light. Clearly, the show’s creators had respect for those who served in Vietnam. Larry Wilcox had spent more than a year in the war as an artilleryman.
They Hardly Ever Used Guns
CHiPs ran for 139 episodes. Can you guess how many episodes actually showed the officers drawing their weapons? Only three! That’s right. There were only three episodes where cops had guns in their hands, and neither Jon nor Ponch were ever seen drawing their weapons.
In many cop shows, it’s pretty common for guns to be used and shootouts to happen, but CHiPs was different. Airing in the 8:00 p.m. family time slot, it was designed to be a more lighthearted, family-friendly kind of cop show, so the writers didn’t feel the need to include crazy gunfights.
An Interesting Accessory
If you go back and watch an episode of CHiPs, pay close attention to the officers’ outfits. You may notice that they wore Sam Browne belts, and just behind the holster was a rectangular pouch. Ever wonder what that was for?
Well, that pouch is not part of the official CHP uniform or any law enforcement outfit. It was actually added to the actors’ outfits to store the battery that powered their microphones. What a clever little trick by the costume team!
The Leads Did Many Stunts
Actors often have to decide whether or not they’re willing to risk their own safety by doing stunts or step aside and let professional stunt actors and doubles do the more dangerous scenes. In the case of CHiPs, both Wilcox and Estrada volunteered to do many of their own stunts.
This was a bold move for the two actors, and even though stunt doubles were used for some of the more dangerous moments, it’s impressive to know that both leading actors were willing to step up and do some dangerous things to keep viewers as entertained as possible.
Estrada Was Injured Repeatedly
So how did the stunt scenes actually turn out for our two heroes? Well, Larry Wilcox got off pretty lightly. He succeeded in his stunt scenes without suffering any notably serious injuries. However, his co-star, Erik Estrada, was not so lucky!
Estrada actually suffered a long series of injuries on the set of CHiPs. In fact, in the show’s first season, you can actually see a huge bruise on Estrada’s arm after he was flung from a motorcycle and skidded along the ground.
Erik’s Worst Injury
Erik Estrada’s worst injury during his time on CHiPs came while filming an episode for season three. By that point, the actor had plenty of experience riding bikes and doing small stunts, but he still found himself in a very dangerous situation when an accident occurred, and he ended up fracturing several ribs.
Estrada also broke both his wrists in the accident, putting him in a lot of pain and taking him out of action for a while as he recovered. The accident and his hospitalization were actually written into the show’s plot so the filming could continue.
The Cast Saved the Life of a Real Officer
The cast of CHiPs performed some heroic acts on screen, but in 1981, they found themselves involved in a real-world, life-or-death situation. Two California Highway Patrolmen had been seriously injured while working, and they needed blood donations to have a chance to survive.
When the cast heard about what happened, they knew they wanted to do something to help. They decided to take a break from filming for the day so they could visit the hospital and donate blood. Their donations helped keep one of the officers alive. Sadly, the other one died from his injuries.
Ponch Inspired the Village People
Fans of CHiPs who also happened to enjoy the music of the Village People may have noticed that one member of the famous group bears more than a passing resemblance to a character on CHiPs. Indeed, the police officer in the band looks quite similar to Erik Estrada’s character, Ponch, which was done intentionally!
Victor Willis was the man in the police officer costumer, and he admitted that Ponch’s tight patrol uniform had inspired him when picking out the outfit for his character. When asked about his views on this, Estrada said he had no problem with it and actually met the band while he was filming CHiPs.
Ponch Was Originally Italian
The writers for CHiPs created the character of Francis “Ponch” Poncherello, expecting him to be played by an Italian American. However, Erik Estrada, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was the man who ended up in the role, so if the Italian surname always seemed a little strange to you, that’s how it happened.
In addition, rumor has it that during his audition, Estrada punched a wall after messing up one of his lines. The casting team liked his passion so much that they allegedly decided to offer him the part. This story has not been confirmed, but it hasn’t been denied either.
Critics Did Not Respond Warmly to CHiPs
Some shows enjoy critical success but don’t get good ratings. Others get good ratings but aren’t a hit with the critics. CHiPs most certainly fell into the latter category. Critics really hated the show at first, and it received a series of negative reviews.
Indeed, when the show premiered, most critics gave it terrible 1-star ratings, with one famously calling the show “dreadful.” Although the ratings weren’t too great to begin with, the show gradually picked up steam and eventually became the big hit we all know and love.
A Slot Change Saved the Show
After the poor first season reviews and low to average ratings, there were some NBC executives who felt that CHiPs might need to be canceled. Things weren’t looking too good for the show after an unimpressive start, but NBC decided to greenlight a second season.
The network also made a big decision that helped turn the show’s fortunes around. They moved it from the Thursday slot to a slot on Saturday, which helped the show attract more viewers, generate more hype, and become much more popular from the second season onward.
A Strange Syndication Choice
Once CHiPs finished its first five seasons, it was sold into syndication in 1982. MGM wanted to make sure people wouldn’t get confused between the old reruns and the new episodes of the show, so they decided to air reruns under a different name.
For syndication purposes, the show was renamed CHiPs Patrol. This might sound fine at first, but it actually doesn’t make much sense because the “P” in CHiPs already stands for “Patrol.” So CHiPs Patrol actually meant California Highway Patrol Patrol, which sounds a little silly.
An Unfortunate Merchandise Issue
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was very common for kids’ toys to feature the characters of popular TV shows, even shows like CHiPs that weren’t really aimed at children. The Mego toy company got the license to make a bunch of CHiPs toys, but they didn’t really put too much effort into it.
Allegedly, the company reused a lot of molds from other toys, including a motorcycle mold from Happy Days and some boots from Star Trek. That made the items feel bland and generic. In addition, the Jon and Ponch figures were poorly made of low-quality plastic that started to turn green when they were left in the packaging too long, leaving our poor CHiPs heroes looking like zombies!
Both Sides of the Law
One member of the CHiPs cast actually appeared in two separate roles on very different sides of the law! Most people know Randi Oakes for her regular cast member role as Officer Bonnie Clark, a role she played from 1979 to 1982. However, Randi actually appeared in an earlier episode of the show as a car thief!
Randi retired from acting not too long after the end of CHiPs. She had her first baby in 1985 and decided to give up acting to spend time with her family. In an interview in the 1990s, her husband, Gregory Harrison, said his wife was glad to be out of the business, spending her days working on the family home, looking after the kids, and enjoying the simpler things of life.
A Real Arrest
Randi Oakes may have played a criminal on the show, but one member of the cast found themselves in real-life trouble with the law, and it was none other than the show’s leading man, Larry Wilcox! In 2010, the actor was arrested and charged with fraud.
News reports at the time explained that Wilcox had unwittingly solicited kickbacks from an undercover FBI agent in order to gain funding for his mining business. To avoid serious punishment, Wilcox agreed to cooperate with authorities and wore a wire to help catch others involved in the scheme.
The Right Side of the Law
While Larry Wilcox found himself in hot water with the police, his former co-star, Erik Estrada, made sure to stay on the right side of the law. In fact, Estrada actually became a real cop in the early 2000s.
In 2006, Estrada became a reserve officer for the Muncie, Indiana, police force. He was deputized as part of a reality series, but he enjoyed it so much that he returned later to work a patrol shift. He also worked as part of a unit designed to identify and stop Internet crimes against children.
Shooting CHiPs Could Be Very Confusing
When talking about their time on the show, many former CHiPs cast members and crew members have stated that shooting scenes could sometimes be quite confusing due to the presence of real officers on the set.
Often, genuine California Highway Patrolmen were present or in the area while the show was being filmed. That made it difficult for some people to know who was an actor and who was a real officer, which led to a few funny cases of mistaken identity from time to time.
Bringing the Team Back Together
More than a decade after CHiPs aired its last episode, the makers of the show decided to put the team back together for one last adventure. They made a made-for-TV movie called CHiPs ’99, reuniting most of the original cast, including Wilcox, Estrada, Pine, Greer, Penhall, and more.
The film acted as a sequel to the TV series, continuing where the show left off. It was a real treat for fans who had been missing their favorite California Highway Patrol officers. It only took 17 days to shoot the film, and it seemed like Estrada and Wilcox managed to put their differences behind them to make it all happen.
A Big Screen Reboot
Many years after the fun TV movie CHiPs ’99, movie makers had the idea of creating a CHiPs reboot for the big screen. The movie was simply called CHIPS, written, and directed by Dax Shepard and released in 2017.
The film brought back the characters of Jon and Ponch but replaced the original actors with Dax Shepard taking the role of Jon and Michael Pena having the role of Ponch. Other members of the cast included Adam Brody and Vincent D’Onofrio.
A Total Failure
Unfortunately for Shepard and his friends, the CHiPs reboot was a major failure, both critically and commercially. It barely managed to win back its budget of $25 million, picking up $26.8 million at the box office, and had an 18% approval rating on the movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes.
Critics tend to agree that the film failed to embrace so much of what made the original show great, with many of the jokes falling flat and the plot feeling generic and formulaic. Larry Wilcox also had harsh words for the film, saying it “ruined the brand of CHiPs and of the California Highway Patrol.”
An Impact on Pop Culture
The movie might not have been a big hit, but it didn’t take anything away from the success of the original series and the huge impact it had on popular culture. We can see a lot of references to CHiPs in other shows and films in recent decades.
In a 1980 Battlestar Galactica episode, for example, a California Highway Patrolman says, “How come this never happens to those two guys on TV?”—referring to Jon and Ponch. The Disney movie Planes: Fire & Rescue also makes references to CHiPs by including a parody TV show called ChoPs.
An Unforgettable Show
Over the course of 139 episodes and one reunion movie, the cast and crew of CHiPs gave fans a lot of happy times. The show offered the perfect blend of action, comedy, and intrigue, with fresh stories, fun lines, and awesome acting too.
CHiPs stands out as one of the most memorable shows of the ’70s and ’80s golden age of TV, and classic episodes can still be enjoyed to this day. Hopefully, this article helped remind you what made CHiPs so great and maybe taught you a few things you didn’t know about this classic show.