Hand color tinted photo of Erik Estrada & Larry Wilcox as Ponch & Jon, from the 1977 television series, CHIPS
CHiPs is an American television drama series produced by MGM Studios (now owned by Turner Entertainment) that originally aired on NBC from September 15, 1977, to June 17, 1983. CHiPs followed the lives of two motorcycle police officers of the California Highway Patrol. The series ran for 139 episodes over six seasons.
CHiPs was a lightweight action crime drama, which included elements of comedy in every episode (several of the first season episodes play as out-and-out comedies). Over-the-top freeway pileups, which occurred in almost every episode, were a signature of the show. There was little if any actual violence on CHiPs, and the show can be classified as a dramedy. The episodes filled a standard hour-long time slot, which at the time required 48 minutes of actual programming.
The show was created by Rick Rosner, and starred Erik Estrada as macho, rambunctious Officer Francis (“Frank”) “Ponch” Poncherello and Larry Wilcox as his straight-laced partner, Officer Jonathan “Jon” Baker. With Ponch the more trouble-prone of the pair, and Jon generally the more level-headed one trying to keep him out of trouble with the duo’s gruff yet fatherly commanding officer Sergeant Joseph Getraer (Robert Pine), the two were Highway Patrolmen of the Central Los Angeles office of the California Highway Patrol (CHP, hence the name CHiPs).
As real-life CHP motor officers rarely ride in pairs, in early episodes this was explained away by placing the trouble-prone Ponch on probationary status, with Jon assigned as his field training officer. Eventually, by the end of the first season, this subplot faded away (Ponch completed his probation) as audiences were used to seeing the two working as a team.
In the fifth season (1981–1982) Estrada went on strike over a dispute over syndication profits. As a result he did not appear in seven episodes; for that period he was replaced by Bruce Jenner (Officer Steve McLeish). Despite their successful pairing on-screen, Wilcox and Estrada did not always get along behind the camera. However, it was Wilcox’s falling-out with the producers over what he saw as continual favoritism towards Estrada that saw Wilcox not return for the sixth and final season. Wilcox was replaced by Tom Reilly (Officer Bobby Nelson). 1981 and 1982 Speedway World Champion and Los Angeles native Bruce Penhall was also introduced as cadet–probationary officer Bruce Nelson, Bobby’s younger brother in 1982-83.
Estrada apparently did not approve of Reilly’s work ethic and was very displeased with Reilly’s real life arrest by the LAPD for possession of controlled substances during a traffic stop. As a result, Bobby was featured much less prominently in later episodes of the season, with Bruce taking his place for most of the remainder episodes.
According to a 1998 TV Guide article, show creator Rick Rosner was a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. During a coffee break on an evening patrol shift in the mid-1970s he saw two young CHP officers on motorcycles which gave him the idea for this series. He later created 240-Robert, which seemed like a hybrid of “CHiPs” and Emergency!
The character of Ponch was originally conceived to be Italian (“Poncherini”), but when Erik Estrada won the part, the character was changed to Hispanic American.
Episodes occasionally reference Jon Baker’s service in Vietnam. This makes his character one of the earliest regular (and one of the more positive) portrayals of a Vietnam Veteran on television. Larry Wilcox served 13 months in Vietnam as a Marine artilleryman.
Though public perception links the later P-Series Kawasaki Police Special with the series, in fact they rode the C-Series Kawasaki, which had an oval windshield rather than the later model’s fiberglass fairing.
Filming locations were generally in the San Fernando Valley of California. Freeway crashes were performed on recently constructed highways that were not yet open to the public. For the first season, the Glendale Freeway (Highway 2) in Montrose, California was used. After the first season, the intersection of the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) and the Simi Valley Freeway (Highway 118) in Sylmar, California were used. For the racing scenes in the episode “Drive, Lady, Drive” they used the Riverside International Raceway in Riverside, California.
Although doubles were used for far-off shots and various stunt or action sequences, Wilcox and Estrada did a great deal of their own motorcycle riding, and performed many smaller stunts themselves. Although Wilcox emerged relatively injury-free, Estrada suffered various injures several times throughout the run of the series. In several early first season episodes, a huge bruise or scar can be seen on his arm after he was flung from one of the motorcycles and skidded along the ground. But his worst accident came when he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident while filming an episode in August 1979, fracturing several ribs and breaking both wrists. The accident and Estrada’s subsequent hospitalization was incorporated into the series’ storyline.
Prior to being cast in CHiPs Estrada had no experience with motorcycles, so he underwent an intensive eight-week course, learning how to ride. In 2007 it was revealed that he didn’t hold a motorcycle license at the time CHiPs was in production, and only qualified for a license after three attempts, while preparing for an appearance on a reality television show, Back To The Grind.
Estrada and Wilcox never drew their firearms over the course of the series. (This did occur in the made-for-TV reunion movie CHiPs ’99.) The only character on the series depicted as drawing his firearm was Baricza (Brodie Greer), and he did so three times. The first was his radio car’s Ithaca 37 shotgun in Season 1’s episode “Rainy Day”, where the CHiPs conduct a felony traffic stop of a motorhome-based casino. The second was in Season 2’s premiere, Peaks and Valleys”, against two hillbillies armed with a Tommy-gun and a double-barrel shotgun who had ambushed his unattended patrol car for fun. Here the action was only implied, with his hand/wrist motion just below camera range. The last was in Season 4’s “Karate”, in which a karate-trained car burglar (Danny Bonaduce) attacked him with a Bo, but wisely retreated to a getaway van when Baricza drew his gun.
NBC aired reruns of this series on its daytime schedule from April–September 1982.
During the original run of the series, syndicated reruns of older episodes were retitled CHiPs Patrol to avoid confusion. Later syndicated reruns after the show went out of production reverted to the original title.
Initially, before John Parker did his now iconic theme music, award winning television composer Mike Post—who scored a few episodes in the first season, did a theme which was not used. To this day it has not been heard. Some of television’s most famous themes ever were composed by Post, including: “Quantum Leap”, “The Rockford Files”, “Hill Street Blues”, and “Magnum, pi” (among dozens of others)
A typical CHiPs episode
CHiPs episodes were usually a combination of light comedy and melodrama. A typical episode would start with Ponch and Jon on routine patrol or being assigned to an interesting beat, such as Malibu or the Sunset Strip. In roll call briefing, Sgt. Getraer would alert his officers to be on the lookout for a particular criminal operation, such as people staging accidents as part of an insurance scam or punks breaking into cars. A few interesting, unrelated vignettes often transpired during the course of “routine” traffic enforcement. A light-hearted subplot would also be included, such as Harlan trying to hide a stray dog from Getraer at the office. A more serious theme, such as Ponch trying to keep a kid from his old neighborhood out of a potential life of crime, might also be included. After a few failed attempts to apprehend the gang that had been menacing L.A.’s freeways, the episode would invariably culminate in Ponch and Jon leading a chase of the suspects (often assisted by other members of their division), climaxing with a spectacular series of stunt vehicle crashes. The show then typically featured a dénouement of Ponch and Jon participating in a new activity (such as jet skiing or skydiving), designed to showcase the pair’s glamorous Southern California lifestyle. Often, Ponch would attempt to impress a woman he had met during the episode with his athletic prowess or disco dancing, only to fail and provide Jon, Getraer, and others with many laughs. As the preliminary end credits would start, the image would freeze multiple times, showing various characters laughing or otherwise enjoying the social scene.
A series of 3 3/4″ action figures was released by Mego in the late 1970s. Due to the materials used to construct the figures, many of them have discolored (typically turning green) or started to decompose over the years, making good conditioned examples quite hard to find on the collectors market. There was also a series of six diecast model vehicles produced by Imperial Toys.
In the UK, as was common with many popular US series of the era, a series of tie-in annuals were produced by World International Publishing Ltd, containing stories, photos, puzzles and features on the stars. There are four annuals in total, one each for 1980–83.
In 2006, a limited edition soundtrack was released on CD by Turner Classic Movies’ music division, featuring the original recordings of the main theme by John Parker and in-episode musical scores from many episodes of the second season, as composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri (Silvestri also arranged the theme as heard from season two onwards, and it’s this version that’s heard here – the soundtrack album also includes the “Trick or Treat” score composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton, his only work for the series). In 2008, music from the third season was released by the same film & TV score releasing label, Film Score Monthly.