"CHiPs" Bits: Some Thoughts on the Classic TV Cop Show starring Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox in the 1970s

Herbie J Pilato

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[Note: Entertainment and media websites such as IMBD.com, and the book, Dashing, Daring and Debonair: TV's Top Male Icons From The '50s, '60s, and '70s, were utilized as reference material for this article.]

In the days before and during the CHiPs era (NBC, 1977-1983) there were many positive “partners in crime,” on TV, which dates back to Jack Webb’s own original Dragnet – and for that matter Batman and Robin on ABC’s campy Batman series and onto The Mod Squad (both of which originally aired in the '70s).

During the initial CHiPs period, the partner hook-up was rampant. You had three cops on The Rookies, three private detectives on Charlie’s Angels, and two cops with Starsky & Hutch.

But there is an essence to CHiPs that you didn’t find on other police or detective shows at the time. And that essence was based on the “reality” that Jack Webb brought to all of his shows. In many ways, CHiPs was the police version of Emergency – Webb's popular medical-based series from the 1970s.

CHiPs was based on the real motorcycle policemen of the California Highway Patrol – and the show’s characters were named after real-life CHP officers. And while Webb tried to create and bring a certain reality to the o-screen fantasy of television, off-screen, the show’s cast did things like donated blood to real-life CHiPs officers who were shot in the line of duty.

The on-screen chemistry between Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox was outstanding – and contributed to what became two very likable performances. That’s an important aspect of performing for actors. No matter what’s going on between the characters on screen, no matter what the characters are experiencing, the actor’s performance has to be likable. And in that case, both Estrada and Wilcox delivered.

It was a ground-breaking idea to have Estrada cast on CHiPs. Like Diahann Carroll some years before on Julia – in which she became the first African-American actress to be cast in the lead of her own comedy series, Estrada became the first Latino actor to star in a weekly police show – and which ultimately contributed to Webb’s realistic vision of CHiPs.

Estrada brought a lot to the table when he was cast as Ponch on CHiPs. His pre-Ponch extensive resume includes appearances on TV shows like Mannix, Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, The Six Million Dollar Man – and Emergency, on which he first caught Jack Webb's attention.

Larry Wilcox also had a substantial amount of experience before he was cast as Jon on CHiPs, including many successful TV-movies like Mr. and Mrs. Bojo Jones, The Greatest American Beauty Contest, and The Girl Most Likely To. And then too, he also did guest-shots on weekly TV shows like Hawaii Five-0, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, and Police Story – all of which lead up to his role as Jon on CHiPs.

After Wilcox left the show, Ponch was introduced to a new partner named Bobby Hot Dog Nelson in an episode titled, "Meet the New Guy." Approximately 1800 people auditioned for the part before Tom Reilly won the role.

Sometimes the reality of CHiPs hit a little too close to home – as when Erik Estrada was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1979. Fortunately, he was ok – and he didn’t miss any episodes – and although the accident transpired on the set, the footage was never used on the show.

CHiPs was never a super-highly rated series. It wasn’t until like 1979 that it made it into the top 20 shows on TV. But when it came to the show's popularity, it wasn’t about ratings. But rather, it had to do with the show's demographics, which were extensive.

The legacy of CHiPs is the legacy of all that is good about television – it proved that a popular TV could be educational and entertaining beyond PBS. It opened doors for Latino actors and actors of every minority. And it introduced to mainstream TV viewers a division of the police department that they might not have otherwise known.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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