CHiPs was a TV series that ran from September of 1977 to July of 1983 and followed the lives of two motorcycle cops of the California Highway Patrol. A total of 139 episodes were filmed, plus one reunion TV movie in 1998.
CHiPs was a lightweight action crime drama, with a little bit of comedy thrown in (though several first season episodes were played as full-on comedies). Outrageous freeway pileups occurred with great regularity, but there was hardly any actual violence on CHiPs, and if you really need to classify it, you should file it under “dramedy”.
The show was created by Rick Rosner and starred Erik Estrada as macho, rambunctious Officer Francis Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello and Larry Wilcox as his straight-arrow partner, Officer Jonathan “Jon” Baker. Jon was level-headed most of the time and tried (with varying degrees of success) to keep Ponch out of trouble with their gruff yet fatherly C.O. Sergeant Joseph Getraer (Robert Pine).
Since real-life CHP officers usually don't ride in pairs, early episodes of CHiPs explained it away by saying that the trouble-prone Ponch was on probation, with Jon assigned to look after him. By the end of the first season the subplot had served its purpose and it faded away (Ponch had completed his probation); by then audiences were used to seeing the two men working together.
A typical CHiPs episode started with Ponch and Jon on routine patrol or being given an interesting assignment (i.e. Malibu or the Sunset Strip). Sgt. Getraer would tell his officers during roll call to be on the lookout for an ongoing criminal operation of special interest, such as insurance scammers staging accidents or a gang of punks breaking into cars. Unrelated vignettes would also arise over the course of the pair's otherwise “routine” traffic duties.
Light-hearted subplots made regular appearances as well, such as the time when Harlan tried to hide a stray dog from Getraer at the office. More serious themes were also explored, such as when Ponch tried to keep a kid from his old neighborhood out of a potential life of crime. Episodes tended to culminate in Ponch and Jon (assisted by other members of their division) chasing suspects into spectacular vehicular crashes.
The show would then treat viewers to a dénouement in which Ponch and Jon tried out something new (such as jet skiing or skydiving), that inevitably highlighted the duo's glamorous Southern California lifestyle. Ponch couldn't resist trying to impress a woman he'd met during the episode with his athletic prowess or his disco dancing, only to fail and provide Jon, Getraer, and others with many laughs. As the credits rolled, the image would freeze repeatedly, showing various CHiPs characters laughing and/or enjoying the social scene.
CHiPs also indulged in its share of implausible plots, such as when Ponch and his 6th-Season partner Bobby Nelson helped a girl who thought she was being targeted by UFOs. In another episode, they raced against time to defuse a battery that was about to explode on an intelligent experimental police robot.
Show creator Rick Rosner was a reserve deputy with the L.A. 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 -- and so, the idea for CHiPs was born.
Episodes sometimes referenced Jon Baker's service in Vietnam. His character was thus one of the earliest regular (and more positive) portrayals of a Vietnam vet on TV. Larry Wilcox served 13 months in Vietnam as a Marine artilleryman.
Filming locations were generally in California's San Fernando Valley. Freeway crashes were staged on recently-built highways that not yet open to the public. In season 1, the Glendale Freeway (Highway 2) in Montrose was used. From that point on, the intersection of the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) and Simi Valley Freeway (Highway 118) in Sylmar were used. The racing scenes in the episode “Drive, Lady, Drive” took place at the International Raceway in Riverside.
Although the show used doubles for long shots and many stunt and/or action segments, Wilcox and Estrada did in fact do much of their own motorcycle riding, and handled many smaller stunts themselves. Although Wilcox emerged relatively unscathed, Estrada was injured several times during the run of the show. In several early first-season episodes, a huge bruise or scar was visible on his arm after he was flung from one of the motorcycles and skidded along the ground. His worst accident came in a season three episode when he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and fractured several ribs. He also broke both his wrists. The accident and Estrada's hospitalization were subsequently written into the series' storyline.
Because Estrada had no experience with motorcycles prior to starring in CHiPs, he underwent an intensive eight-week motorcycle-riding course to prepare for the role. Only many years later was it revealed that he didn't have a motorcycle license when CHiPs was in production, and only qualified for one after two failed attempts.
Over the course of the show, Estrada and Wilcox never drew their guns. The only character who did was Baricza (Brodie Greer).
Cast of characters
In season five (1981–1982), Estrada went on strike over a dispute with producers over syndication profits, and didn't appear in seven episodes; he was replaced by Bruce Jenner. Despite their on-screen camaraderie, Wilcox and Estrada didn't always get along off-camera. Wilcox eventually had a falling-out with the producers over what he saw as their chronic favoritism toward Estrada — it led to Wilson's departure prior to the show's last season. He was replaced by Tom Reilly (Officer Bobby Nelson).