Interview with Larry Wilcox from CHiPs

(This interview was originally published December 30, 2013 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Larry Wilcox. He is best known to many as "Officer Jon Baker" on the television series CHiPs. In addition to that and many other television acting roles over the years, he is also a proud Marine veteran of the Vietnam War as well as a devoted husband and father. Find out a little about him, his time making CHiPs and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Larry Wilcox...

Q: At what point did you decide that acting could become a career for you? From there, how did you go about pursuing that career? Please tell us a little about what you had done prior to CHiPs in 1977.
Larry: I started taking piano lessons at the Beverly Hills Music Academy as a young 17-18-year-old boy fresh out of hick town Wyoming where I played an electric organ in a band. I was not sure where I was going or what I wanted to do but kind of enjoyed that youthful indulgence on stage and the complimentary rewards. During this time, I met an old acting teacher named Lois Auer and she told me I looked like a "boy next door" and I just blushed not knowing what she really meant. She asked me if I would like to come and do a free acting class for one or two classes, so I did and I was a natural with little inhibition for some odd reason. Anyway, none that showed to the peers or spectators as those inhibitions were all veiled in young false bravado searching for an identity. Later I told her that I could not afford to pay $30 a month for acting lessons in 1966 and so she said I could take them for free. I loved that because initially I really enjoyed gawking at all the young and beautiful southern California girls.

Soon thereafter I joined the Marines [in 1967] and went to Vietnam. I returned to So Cal in 1970 and began studying in college, Dentistry and Drama. Dentistry seemed to placate my fear of poverty and satisfy my ego, while acting satisfied my passion and my young indulgent evolution. It was at this time in my young 20-year-old life that I really thought that I would succeed in acting and I knew it more and more in every acting class I took. I knew instantly how to "dribble the ball and make the three point shots" if you will, and as a result I usually got the best college acting roles, my TV commercial career took off and I made six figures a year as a young man. Naively, I thought it would never stop. I was soon starring in a TV series called Lassie or, better stated, I co-starred with Lassie and went on to do guest-roles in various episodic TV shows, on-going TV commercials and Disney Movies or Movies of the Week for the three networks (ABC, NBC and CBS).

Wilcox joined the cast of Lassie in 1971 as "Dale Mitchell" and stayed with the show until 1973. But it is his time on CHiPs that connects him to the '80s and what most people remember.

Q: How did the role of "Officer Jon Baker" on CHiPs come your way?
Larry: "Jon Baker" was offered to me by a producer, Rick Rosner. Rick had seen me in a movie with Farrah Fawcett called The Great American Beauty Contest [1973] and some Hawaii Five-O episode, and he wanted me to star in a pilot called Aero Bureau with Don Meredith of football fame. We did that show and had a great time, but it never sold. So when CHiPs came around, they wanted me to do that show also, but I said no. My rationale was that there were too many police shows then, notwithstanding the fact that I had come to believe I was now an artiste and I needed to mold my career accordingly. And so they offered me more money and I jumped. Therein lies the moral to the young actors ego!

CHiPs ran for six seasons and 139 episodes on NBC beginning in September of 1977 and ending in July of 1983. It moved to a Sunday night time slot beginning in 1980. The series starred Erik Estrada as "Officer Frank Poncherello" and Larry Wilcox as "Officer Jon Baker". They were both California Highway Patrolmen, one (Ponch) being macho and trouble-prone while the other (Baker) was more straight-laced and level-headed. It also co-starred Robert Pine as their Sergeant. The popular series included both action and some comedy while its two stars went on to become heartthrobs all over the world. Many guys wanted to be like them and many women wanted to be with them. Here is the opening credits to CHiPs...

Q: Over the course of the show, you and Estrada both became heartthrobs to women all over. Was that attention that you enjoyed? What can you tell us about how that was?
Larry: Let's just say that there was candy everywhere you went and any and all kind of indulgent behavior was allowed. If you had any insecurities, justifying it as being a flavor-of-the-month or a flash-in-the-pan was the panacea for any and all exploratory insecurities. I will simply say, let your imagination attend the most fun, sexy, and arousing carnival of events you can think of... that's what it was like... good luck.

When you are young, you are still defining who you are and one of the interesting rewards of the show were attractive girls. I often thank my lucky stars for allowing me to transition through this wonderful carnival of girls, because most men NEVER get such an opportunity. Today, I look at many successful actors who could never have had ANY girl, let alone a pretty girl, and now have a wife who is a true trophy or arm piece as they say. I know those phrases are very condescending and not appropriate but they were the norm for a young indulgent male who was myopic of course.

Q: Did you ever expect that the show would be such a major success and you would go on to play the role for five seasons? At what point did you realize that you were a part of something special?
Larry: At first, the show was not successful and we had to plead to the network to switch times that CHiPs was aired. Once that happened the show began to take off. The publicity and reaction from the fans was a little confusing for me and at times I simply stared in awe (i.e. when we arrived in Brazil, 40,000 fans met us at the airport). It was a great run because there were only three networks to watch on TV and we were in people's living rooms every week in over 100 countries. The "branding" you get from this kind of exposure is extremely powerful and beneficial in business with respect to other opportunities. I think that most actors do not realize they are a product with a shelf life and they had better pursue all opportunities while they are able to do so.

Q: Any particular meaning behind your call name on the show, 7-Mary-3?
Larry: 7-Mary-3, 7 stood for the Central division, Mary meant MOTORS (vs cars) and 3 was the area or Freeway area that you were patrolling or assigned to.

Q: Was it a pre-determined intentional decision that your characters would never draw your guns on the show?
Larry: Our show was designed to never pull a gun, but still have a police theme as well as a personal theme and a moral to the story.

Q: I read that you did some of your own stunts on the show. What can you tell us about your stunt work and motorcycle riding on the show?
Larry: Stunt work is its own little culture of course and they can be kind of like when the infamous Black Knight shows up at the set to risk his life fighting in the arena. They were all young athletes and had the requisite ego to perform very dangerous stunts. I was always impressed with their athleticism and because I came from a small town, Rawlins, Wyoming, where I played all sports and did all those "boy things", I felt I could do a lot of my own stunts and it would be more cinematic than a fake cut to my stuntman's back to disguise who it really was. So in some cases, I did some of the minor stunts. I did all my own rodeo stuff, sometimes did the fight scenes, did all my own Jet Ski stuff.

When we did the CHiPs Reunion in 1999 for TNT (highest rated show on TNT) I did the fight scene on a moving bus going about 30 MPH. I had cables tied to me so if I fell I would be dangling on the side of the bus but would not hit the pavement speeding by. We did the fight sequence several times and it worked well with director Jon Cassar. Then they decided they wanted one more take, and I said OK (lesson to be learned). So instead of going back to our start point again, they said we will just go on down this road another half mile and we will be done with this. The next half mile had not been previously scouted so that can become an issue as it did here. We began the sequence and it was going well until I threw a hard-swinging right hand punch to the other stuntman playing the actor in my scene, and I slipped and fell to the roof of the bus. Immediately thereafter we came crashing into a low hanging big thick oak tree branch which hit the cameraman and crew in the back of the head and the camera was broken. It would have killed me. The cameraman and crew were taken away in an ambulance and they said they would never film stunts again. They all survived with minor injuries but were really bleeding from the back of their heads. When we were doing the jet ski stuff, most of that was in the Pacific Ocean down by the Queen Mary.

I can remember my stuntman was a guy named Scott Dockstader (or Gary Davis at times) and Erik Estrada's stunt man was Danny Rogers. However, I wanted to do my own stunts with the Jet Skis so Danny Rogers and I would be sitting on the jet skis in the ocean talking and our legs would be dangling over the back into the ocean. These were the old jet skis that you had to stand up on to ride them. All of a sudden, I would start humming the music from Jaws to Danny; we would scream like little girls, jump up on our skis and take off so nothing was in the water. It was probably the one time I did not want to fall off my jet ski and swim back to it to crawl back on... as I imagined some shark gnawing on my leg.

There is an old saying about riding motorcycles: if you haven't been down, it is a matter of time before you go down, that is for sure. So of course I wrecked my motorcycle multiple times. Once, the crew designed a trailer to pull our motorcycles on while shooting that had my rear tire on the pavement. The problem with that design showed up in the first turn I went around at 30-40 mph because it could not lean or turn and simply pitched me in the air about 25 feet to land on my hip on the hard pavement. The gun was rubber and that bruised me badly but probably saved me from a broken pelvis.

And once I did a celebrity BMX race and won two or three heats making me think I had talent (Peter Principle). So in the final race for the championship, I decided on the first downhill high-speed jump that, while in the air, I would do a cross-up and come down back to normal. This is a minor stunt for any motorcycle rider, but in my case, I crossed up and did not uncross when I landed so the bicycle pitched me right off and broke my ribs and punctured my lung. Here I was the big CHiPs star with his own BMX clothing line and I could not even ride a BMX bike. My children, Derek and Heidi, were with me (I have 5 kids) and they took me to the hospital in an ambulance (though the driver assigned did not know how to turn on the red lights or the siren making it a quiet ride). When we finally arrived at the hospital, they said I may have ruptured my aorta and they were going to put pressure on the valve to test it. If it had ruptured I would die immediately and if not, all would be fine. So they asked me if I wanted to call anyone and say anything before the test began. I called three or four people and I could not reach anyone so I told them, hell with it, just go ahead. Luckily it was not ruptured (or I wouldn't be telling you this story today).

Speaking of that dangerous stunt work, those high speed chases and over-the-top freeway pile ups, here is just one short example of the stunt-driving work on CHiPs...

Q: What else can you share with us regarding your time on CHiPs? Any favorite memories or benefits?
Larry: CHiPs was a family show and was meant to have parallel themes for Jon and Ponch. There was always a police theme and a personal theme. The show would shoot a one hour show in six days and five of those days were normally exteriors with one hard long day of interiors. The uniforms were hot and as the show got more popular and the actors (me, we, us) became aware of marketing, the uniforms got tailored and tighter and more uncomfortable in the heat.

There were fun memories riding the jet skis, riding the motorcycles, hanging out at MGM Studios, driving my Rolls Royce convertible, directing some episodes of CHiPs and talking with the crew each week which became a surrogate family. It was a neat time for sure... and I loved flying my own little single engine airplane (a Navion) to location. Screeching my tires onto the runway, taxiing over by the crew, turning off my engine, and pushing back my canopy... it was so fun. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Of course there were great salaries, great first-class travel to learn about various cultures, great cars, a great home, and the ability to vacation in style with my children and family. I had all the free motorcycles I wanted, all the jet skis, my own airplane, guitars, horses, clothes, idolatry, and respect. I was able to meet with two U.S. Presidents (Reagan and Bush), speak in Washington D.C. and become the spokesperson for major non-profit organizations. I received a free pass into many major circles and was even asked if I would be interested in running for a Senate seat (thank God I did not). I got to record a record, and produce my own TV series The Ray Bradbury Theatre and many movies. It was a fun ride!

I am so grateful for the people I met while doing CHiPs and thereafter. Some became long-time fans and long-time friends. CHiPs was often a bridge of hope and a trusted belief icon for many young people and now they are adults. The stories I hear from them are amazing gifts to my soul and I am grateful that I could bring so much joy, hope, and in some cases, some virtual escapism. Just recently, the CHP Sgt at our Motorcycle parade said he actually became a CHP officer because of Jon Baker.

The show was brightly lit and the crew was one of the best in all of television along with the stunt guys. The crew worked extremely hard and we would often shoot 10-13 pages a day. Cy Chermak was the main producer for most of the years and he was a very seasoned professional who managed all parties and all departments very efficiently. I had lunch with Cy Chermak recently and it was so much fun. He is a very intelligent and vibrant man even at this age [84 years old], and I hope to produce something with him and his wonderful daughter (an entertainment attorney) someday. I have no idea how he managed so many personalities and young rebel egos at that time, but he did and did it under budget! That is a producer. Often actors look so talented and good in a film, but I used to see stuff in the dailies that he cut out that would have embarrassed many actors. He always knew it was about marketing, so he would pick the best marketing shots to help the show and the actor. Often the actor began to think he was really an actor and usually through good on-the-job-training, he could or would actually become a good actor. Robert Pine, Paul Linke, Lew Saunders, Michael Dorn, Randi Oakes, Brianne Leary, Brodie Greer and Lou Wagner made up the cast and they were all great people. Sue Walsh put on a cast reunion for all of us in 2012 and it was the first time I had seen most of them in over 20 years. It was so wonderful and she funded the entire event... and Sue Walsh had simply been a fan of CHiPs. People flew in from Japan, Australia and Italy to get autographs and photos. It was really neat. Erik Estrada would not return our phone calls and did not show up.

Q: Despite being close friends and partners on the show, I have read several accounts that you and Erik Estrada were not necessarily close off screen. What can you tell us about Estrada and your experiences working with him?
Larry: Erik Estrada was a handsome Puerto Rican from New York City. He had pretty feathers (that is what he called his hair) and he had newly-done pretty teeth. He worked out all of the time and enjoyed marketing "Ponch". Jon Baker was pretty close to Larry Wilcox and Ponch was pretty close to Eric Estrada in real life. Erik Estrada was always over-the-top with almost everything he did. He seemed to really enjoy life and had lots of girlfriends on an hourly basis. He was not trained well as an actor but he was a perfect marketing icon of sorts and it worked very well with me as the straight-man counterpart, Jon Baker. Erik was 99.9% of the time a nice guy to me and I had a good time with him.

He had some different quirks with witch craft and his Mom and stuff from Puerto Rico but I thought that was just some veil of sorts. He was a good dancer, and I think he privately wished he was cast in the John Travolta dance movies. He beamed when he came into a room with women and or cameras. Erik loved the film business and he wanted it with all of his soul. Erik wrecked his motorcycle on CHiPs and sued MGM, the studio. I liked Erik on the show and I think he was the right person for the role. I liked his Latin sexy bravado and found him funny and entertaining. Erik was the most popular star of the TV series and the only thing I philosophically did not agree with him on was... I believe TEAMS win and not individuals.

Q: The show lasted 6 seasons, but you made the decision to leave CHiPs after season 5 in 1982. What led to that decision? Any regrets from leaving?
Larry: I left the show and issued a quick press release that I was leaving. I felt the managers and attorneys with Erik Estrada were doing everything they could to remove or injure me. The daily innuendos and one-upmanship from certain plants or parties seemed never-ending. I knew that s*** was brewing, so I left in the nick of time. Recently, I was told that Erik Estrada actually had went to NBC threatening that he would leave the show unless certain people were fired and he handed them a list. Some were crew and some were cast. So, I would say that my timing was perfect if this allegation is true. I believe it was true. However, I honestly have no hard feelings for Erik and believe he was a young naive distrusting Latin boy who was a product of his environment and it showed during crisis. It was not personal; it was just Erik surviving the best he could. Now, I look back and think that maybe I could have been a better mentor, a better friend to Erik and maybe a better role model. I was a macho hick back from Vietnam and the Marines and enjoyed pushing the envelope of life and death. I was still a young naive evolving boy also and both of us lacked parenting. I really look back and wish we could have continued for another 10 years as it was a fun and a GREAT show to work on. I will forever be grateful for my Wyoming upbringing (in some cases), my experiences in Vietnam, CHiPs and, of course, my loved ones and family.

Q: What are your feelings about CHiPs now over 30 years later?
Larry: After all of these years, I am still very proud of co-starring in CHiPs. It was a great show in its day (would not work now) and it was full of action, southern California and all of its "flowers". I look at it as a kind of stepping stone in its day for the youth of America and the 100 foreign counties it was syndicated in. It was so very representative of the late-70s and early-80s in so many ways from wardrobe, hair styles (the long haired bowl cut) to music to cars and action. AIDS was not an issue yet in those days. Music was huge and the fact that you only had three choices for TV made us a big hit. I rode my CHiPs motorcycle the other day in a fund-raising parade for Mesothelioma and some fans from Japan flew over to ride with me and they filmed it. My wife laughed at me as I put on my old CHiPs helmet and donned the big Kawasaki 1000. She said that I had no guts and when I asked why she said, "Why don't you try and put on your old uniform in the closet and ride down their half-zipped up in your tightie whities". So I rode the bike down the 101 freeway to the 405 freeway with traffic moving around 70 mph. I saw a few CHiP and cops in my CHiP Helmet and, as I smiled and waved to them, I got a few double takes. It was really funny and a little bit weird on my part for sure. Probably the last time old Jon Baker will don that sombrero or I might end up in jail for impersonating an officer. Ha!

Q: I asked a similar question in my interviews with the late Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and The Fall Guy's Doug Barr among others. Since you were on a series that was relatively wholesome yet entertaining, I will ask the same question. I have fond memories of when we sat and watched CHiPs together as a family. I know ratings ultimately dictate the programming, but are you disappointed in the lack of family shows on television today? Is this indicative of our society today that wholesome family programming is not as prominent in the network lineups?
Larry: There is very little family programming today. Sadly, it seems like I see and hear so much obscene, immoral and violent material. So you now are beginning to see the capitalist become cannibalistic. We sell anything; principles, values, morals, racism, discrimination, etc... as long as it makes money and the rationale often is that the audience wants it. Seems like dramatic shows today are no longer just soft porn... most are pure porn. There is so much poverty and, as a result, so many kids-at-risk, single parents, inanimate objects as idols, addicts as mentors and philosophers, etc. There are a lot of unresolved injustices and corruption in the system today and it is even on the side of what I call the enforcers (police and judges) and of course within our citizens and communities.

So, would CHiPs work today, you ask? Absolutely not. It is truly a vestige and anachronism that no longer resonates. I wish that dimension of reality was still part of my perception. However, I am starting to see sun on the horizon. I am now having meetings with young, highly-intellectual executives who do not believe in the whore or rape-and-pillage mentality and they want to give back. They do not believe that the guy picking coffee beans should only get $4 for the 100lb bag that was sold to Starbucks for thousands of dollars. The Human narrative needs us to care about each other and to share. I care about people in this country and others who worry each day about simply eating, drinking and being healthy. I hope I can be a small instrument and positive catalyst in this effort and I do not want to do it for P.R. Empathy for ALL! And be careful of judging people when there are often so many unresolved injustices in their lives. As your fellow humble human, I say to you all... THANK YOU and I AM SORRY... and now, let us find SOLUTIONS.

Since leaving CHiPs back in 1982, Wilcox went on to produce the award-winning The Ray Bradbury Theatre for HBO from 1986 to 1989 and guest star in many popular TV series including Hardcastle and McCormick, Hotel, The Love Boat, Matlock, Murder She Wrote and MacGyver as well as several made-for-TV movies. They did a CHiPs TV movie in 1998 which was broadcast on the TNT network and he even reprised his character for a 2009 episode of 30 Rock.

Q: What else has Larry Wilcox been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise?
Larry: I'm currently busy raising my teenage son, a senior in high school and the last of my five kids still in school, and am a caretaker for my elderly father-in-law. I am still active in film production and digital media technology and have several projects in the works. I enjoy the opportunity to travel to various autograph and nostalgia shows around the country and meeting fans. I am still keep in touch with several of my CHiPs cast mates. I also keep busy with various philanthropic and charity projects.

I am so pleased that Larry was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Sue Walsh for helping coordinate the opportunity. To find out more about him and keep up with everything he has going on, please be sure to visit his official website. I want to take this occasion to again thank Larry Wilcox for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through CHiPs and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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