When I was little, “CHiPs” (I’m not trying to be “ironic” – the quotation marks were there in the opening titles…) was the most glamorous programme on television to me (except Airwolf obviously). Two US Californian Highway Patrol cops who had gleaming white smiles and rode huge bikes along virtually empty, sun-kissed, ocean-side highways? What more could you possibly need for an evening’s entertainment?
The two heroes of the drama/comedy (I can’t bring myself to use one word I discovered that it has been called in the past…oh, go on then, I’ll tell you: it’s ‘dramedy’. I know, horrific isn’t it? Please don’t ask me to say it again.) were Officer Francis ‘Frank’ Poncherello – commonly known as ‘Ponch’ (played by Erik Estrada) – and Officer John ‘Jon’ Baker (played by Larry Wilcox). The script writers’ nickname brainstorm didn’t really get going for those two, did it?
During the planning of the show, Ponch was going to be of Italian origin (Poncherini) but when Estrada auditioned and subsequently won the part the character was changed to a Hispanic American. As the real life CHP officers didn’t often ride in tandem, the early scripts explained that Jon was training the probationary Ponch in the field. As the series progressed that explanation was quietly dropped and the audience were happy to accept that the two rode around together. It would have been much duller if the camera couldn’t keep capturing the smug, dazzling bleached smiles between the two men every time they remembered how cool they looked on their bikes.
“CHiPs” was a pretty lightweight show to say the least – it was often played for laughs, particularly the first series, and the emphasis was generally on Ponch getting himself into some sort of ‘oops, not again!’ trouble, with Jon on hand to extract him from whatever predicament he’d ended up in the middle of. At the beginning of the episode, the boys would be assigned to patrol a well-known, often sun, sea ‘n’ sand area of California where their commander Sergeant Getraer (Robert Pine) would tell them that they should be watching out for a certain crime (small time crooks breaking into vehicles or committing insurance frauds etc.) and that would be the main theme of the show. Other, smaller stories would be woven throughout the hour - some fluffy and farcical (UFOs, police robots), others taking on a more moral tone (keeping kids on the straight and narrow) – finishing up with some kind of chase and hugely over-dramatised crash on the freeway.
Despite this being a show about cops, and US cops at that, Ponch and Jon never drew their guns at any point. In fact, in the entire series only one character did this on three occasions (and even one of those instances was actually just implied, rather than seen) and nobody was ever shot.
The San Fernando Valley area was used to film a lot of the outdoor performances, with highway storylines being acted out on stretches of new roads that hadn’t yet been opened. Most of the far-off action scenes, and potentially dangerous shots were filmed using doubles, but to their credit, both Estrada and Wilcox carried out a lot of their own bike scenes and small stunts. This may not have always been considered such a good idea however, particularly for Estrada who was injured on various occasions during the show’s production. He could be spotted sporting a large bruise in a few early episodes after coming off his bike, and in August 1979 during the filming of series three, suffered a much worse accident and ended up in hospital with rib fractures and two broken wrists. The script was quickly tailored to include his stay.
In the fifth season of “CHiPs” the leading duo’s line-up changed when Estrada went AWOL for seven episodes. Ok, he didn’t actually vanish without trace; he just went on strike whilst disputing profits from the show’s syndication but in his place came Officer Steve McLeish. I don’t know if he had a nickname, but on previous form I’m guessing it was something like ‘Leish’, or ‘Stev’. He was played by Bruce Jenner; a man once known as a gold medal winning decathlete, but now unfortunately more likely to be recognised as part of the fame-hungry Kardashian clan.
Despite being absent for much of the season, Estrada was there for enough of it to provoke Wilcox into leaving the show for good. He couldn’t get over what he saw as the favouritism of Estrada by the show’s producers (did he think Estrada got first dibs on the teeth whitening kit perhaps?) and didn’t return for the sixth season. Awww, diddums.
Officer s Bobby (Tom Reilly) and Bruce Nelson (Speedway World Champion Bruce Penhall) joined the squad on Wilcox’s departure, with Bobby taking Jon’s place as Ponch’s wingman but, due to Estrada’s alleged disproval of his work ethic plus an arrest for possession of controlled substances, Reilly took a back seat towards the end of this season. And indeed, the end of the show’s run as the sixth season was to be the last.
“CHiPs” aired on US channel NBC from 15 September 1977 until July 1983, with 139 episodes of bike revving fun in total. The trumpet-heavy theme tune was composed by John Parker, although award-winning TV composer Mike Post originally wrote one that was never used. If it hadn’t been for the iconic-ness of the “CHiPs” sound that we all know and love, I would have thought this was a rookie mistake, as Post also wrote the tune to Hill Street Blues, Quantum Leap and Magnum P.I.
16 years after the series finished, Ponch and Jon got back on their bikes, with the release of ‘CHiPs 99’. The TV movie poster’s tag line didn’t really sell it: ‘It’s their road….It’s their rules….So you’d better watch your asphalt!’ I mean, really? Aside from the diabolical marketing campaign, the movie remained fairly true to the original, with the premise of boys on bikes with dazzling teeth remaining intact. Various remake rumours have been flying about in the years since the movie but nothing has so far come to fruition.
Presumably if another outing was being lined up, and the powers that be wanted to revive Ponch and Jon’s police careers, the bikes would this time have to be replaced with mobility scooters.