I’ve already written why I believe “The Big Bang Theory” has jumped the shark (click here to read that review) and I’ve also written in praise of my all-time favorite schlocky TV series (“The Love Boat” – click here to read that one) and after watching some “CHiPs” episodes on MeTV, I’m sitting down at the laptop and tell you why I totally enjoy that iconic series from the late 1970s. It’s easy: “CHiPs” is fun to watch and, like its better cousin “The Love Boat” was and “Law & Order” would become, it had a bunch of guest stars who were a total treat to watch. So, here I go with my “in praise of” work about “CHiPs.”
(1977-1983; 139 episodes; and starring Erik Estrada, Larry Wilcox, Robert Pine and a supporting cast of dozens)
ROLLING L.A. FREEWAYS WITH PONCH AND JON
I just finished watching an episode of “CHiPs” on the MeTV network and, since it featured a pre-“Freddy Krueger” Robert Englund, I decided I had to take a few minutes and explain why “CHiPs” is a total delight to watch – well, at least for the majority of its episodes.
Although the cars from the late 1970s and early 1980s are cool (almost as much as the totally wonderful muscle cars from the 1960s you see in “Adam-12” from the late 1960s), it is the actual endearing characters of “Jon” and “Ponch” – along with dozens of guest stars you know but might not recognize in their young(er) visages – make you feel a bit better after an episode. They do a good, breezy job as two of the finest of the California Highway Patrol (“CHiPs” … get it? Individual officers are known in the state as Chippies) and while they’re not a tour de force with their acting, they do play well to their audience.
The basics of “CHiPs” is simple: it’s the ongoing story of two California highway patrol officers. At first there is the pretense that excitable rookie motor officer Erik Estrada as “Frank ‘Ponch’ Poncherello” has to be roadway buddies with calm, cool and responsible motor officer Larry Wilcox as “Jon Baker” because he’s being supervised by the more veteran officer, but later episodes just put them together (motor officers don’t usually patrol in pairs).
Of course they find adventure each week as they go after assorted criminals from some petty highway antics to chasing major criminals. While “The Love Boat” had separate story lines with the main characters being a thread between them, “CHiPs” had at least two storylines each week that the characters executed both of them. For example, a bank problem for “Ponch” dovetailed with them out to get a crook who winds up robbing a bank while “Ponch” and “Jon” are inside.
So, you have “breezy.” The guys have fun and it looks like it. They give some attempts at deep emotion, but for the most part this is a “fun” TV series. Now, I’ll take a look at “CHiPs” through a few of the main characters:
- Estrada was 28 the year the series debuted in 1978 and wasn’t too much of a young up-and-comer. He had 24 credits (many well-known TV series and even a spectacle film “Midway” – click here for my review). In “CHiPs,” he’s the Energizer Bunny with a new hobby just about every week and the full-throttle personality to go with it. Like partner Wilcox, Estrada grew into his character but as the series aged his character didn’t get any better than in the early episodes. Still, Estrada is watchable and you should enjoy him here. Estrada has had a prolific career with 141 credits since his first in 1970 in “The Cross and the Switchblade” with Pat Boone.
- Wilcox was only two years older than Estrada, but was the serious, experienced motor officer in the series. He didn’t get to do all the exciting things that Estrada would do, but managed to chart a course that allowed him to work his character somewhat independent of “Ponch.” Like Estrada, Wilcox would never compete for an Oscar as an actor (however, Estrada was nominated for a Golden Globe for “CHiPs”), but that lack of true acting chops doesn’t make him any less watchable or endearing. He knew how to project his character and you liked him without reservation.
- Robert Pine plays the tough-minded supervisor “Sgt. Joseph Getraer” and, along with Estrada, was in every one of the series’ 139 episodes (Wilcox was in 117). I always liked Pine’s work in “CHiPs.” He is smooth, convincing as the boss and, like Wilcox, never, ever overplays his character. Pine also benefited from not having too much camera time as that would have forced the writers to introduce too much from “Sgt. Getraer.” As it was, it was a perfect balance of being a prime character without the baggage of having to overcome shallow attempts to get him into the action or emotion. Pine recently voiced “Bishop” in the hyper-popular “Frozen” and he was also in “Independence Day.” Pine surpasses Estrada with 208 credits in a career that began in 1964. He has been on dozens of TV series (you’ll recognize many from “The Wild Wild West” to “Mannix” to “Lou Grant”) and remains active in Hollywood today at 75.
- Although Wilcox often plays the foil to Estrada’s humor and energy, the “dumb” character here is “Officer Arthur ‘Artie’/‘Grossie’ Grossman” played by Paul Linke. The character is somewhat dim; fallible to a fault; loyal; and one of the officers. Linke, like Pine, knows how not to overplay a character. “Grossman” mostly bumbles along and has to have his bacon saved by one of the others and so Linke does a yeoman’s job of conveying this character (for all I know, he IS bumbling in real life if the TV show is any indication). So, just like the others, Linke leaves you with a smile on your face most times you see him. After Estrada and Pine, he is third in longevity on “CHiPs” with 115 episodes. He hasn’t had quite the prolific career as Pine or Estrada (Linke has just 66 credits since his first in 1970), but has had varied work – from drama such as Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (click here for my review) to horror with “Motel Hell” to sci-fi in “K-PAX.”
- While a couple of others had more episodes than Lou Wagner as “Harlan Arliss,” the diminutive mechanic brought more of a presence than any other supporting character. Wagner, one of Hollywood’s micro-men at 5-foot-2, is the brainy tool jockey who bounces in and out of episodes as kind of a bridge between segments. Wagner is another workmanlike actor who conveys his character well. He’s done films (take 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”) as well as a bunch of TV (take a guest spot on “Coach”).
“CHiPs” offered several beautiful female officers (most notably Randi Oakes as “Officer Bonnie Clark” with 68 episodes and Brianne Leary clocked in for 22 episodes as “Officer Sindy Cahill” (yes, “Sindy”), but outside Oakes they wouldn’t figure prominently for long. Oakes, like some guest stars on “Law & Order,” played both a criminal and a cop on the respective series. Oakes was a car thief in a second season episode and became a regular the next season as “Bonnie Clark.”
Finally on the topic of characters, I would have liked to have seen more of Brodie Greer at “Officer Barry ‘Bear’ Baricza.” He played a smooth, cool officer but didn’t get as involved with the others as much as the “Arliss” character. Greer was the fifth-longest actor on the series with 111 episodes. Greer had a very short career in Hollywood with just 11 credits (“CHiPs” was his first) between 1977 and 1999.
All the main characters returned for the update-sequel TV movie “CHiPs ’99,” but I don’t recall much about that one – other than all the characters are older.
I know that today since all episodes ended on an upbeat note that some will roll their eyes (more will roll their eyes for the cheesy TV work that “CHiPs” turned out weekly), but somehow it all worked. The episodes were fun to watch and the late 1970s and early 1980s trends, fashions and cars are all eye candy today.
Assorted cast and series notes (via IMDb.com):
- A certain “celebrity” who has since become huge news as a transgender was an officer on the series for six episodes. I won’t mention this “celebrity’s” name since just the sound of the name lowers human intelligence.
- Multiple episode guest stars include former football star Jim Brown, “Gilligan’s Island’s” Tina Louise, “F-Troop’s” Larry Storch” and former “Hollywood Squares” TV game show host Peter Marshall (he played himself in three episodes).
- Other familiar names in the “CHiPs” credits include Phyllis Diller, Rudy Vallee, Jim Backus and Regis Philbin.
- Stephen Furst (the iconic “Flounder” of “Animal House” fame) played “Dirtball” in an episode that aired five years after the legendary film comedy debuted.
- Michelle Pfeiffer played “Jobina” in an episode from 1979. You obviously know her better from three films for which she nominated for an Oscar, while I liked her better in “Scarface” and “Married to the Mob” (click here for my review).
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Erik Estrada suffered a very serious motorcycle accident while filming an episode. Until he recovered, he literally shot scenes from his hospital bed.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Jon was among the first characters on a TV series to be identified as a Vietnam Veteran. The portrayal was also among the few at that time to show a Vietnam Veteran in a positive manner. Larry Wilcox who played Jon had actually done service in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine during the Tet Offensive.”
© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2016.
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