The battle between good and evil as it played out on California’s freeways found a good home in the classic 70s NBC series, CHiPs. It was an airy mix of action, police drama and comedy but that was not all; there were also tight uniforms and a groovy theme song.
Starting in 1977, viewers got to see the daily grind of California Highway Patrol officers, Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello. The show centered on the two cops’ professional and private lives, their heroic assistance to motorists and police station politics. Other officers also made an appearance, like the long-suffering Sergeant Getraer and officers Grossman, Turner, Fritz and Baricza. In a triumph for feminists everywhere, a few female CHP officers also graced the show periodically, albeit sometimes clad in very non-regulation uniforms.
CHiPs was created by Rick Rosner and had an episodic format without complicated plot arcs. Emphasis was kept on the lighter side of things and drew in adult and children audiences alike. There were many car chases (many, many), some crashes, a little slapstick and much charm provided by the two leads. The heartthrob title though rested mostly with Ponch, played by the suave and toothy Erik Estrada. The man was a walking commercial for teeth whiteners and those weren’t even out in stores yet. Jon Baker, played by Larry Wilcox, was a little more sedate (bland, some would say) and didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as Ponch.
All the episodes bore a similar structure. Ponch and Baker would be assigned to a specific stretch of road where exciting things were bound to happen and at the morning staff briefing, Sgt. Getraer would outline the latest criminal operation terrorizing the greater L.A. area. The two heroes would be on the lookout for misdeeds and indulge in several comic relief traffic stops (although there’s nothing funny about getting pulled over by the CHP in real life, especially if you call the officer ‘Ponch’). Action would alternate between Ponch and Baker on their patrol and other officers back at the station. Most of the situations were humorous, but there were also serious moments about Deterring Youth From A Life Of Crime or Doing The Right Thing or Rescuing A Bullied Victim or Showing A Bully The Error Of His Ways. The aforementioned criminal operation would come out in the open and the two motorcycle cops would chase the crooks down until there was a huge pile-up on the highway, with many flips and explosions and things falling out of trucks. Somewhere in there, Ponch would score with one or more attractive women and it would all end with the two patrolmen engaged in an extreme hobby, like skydiving.
Ex-Olympian Bruce Jenner replaced Estrada for some episodes in 1981, during a contract dispute between Estrada and the producers. Another cast change became necessary when Wilcox left the show in 1982; Tom Reilly, playing Officer Bobby Nelson, replaced him. In 1983, CHiPs ended its successful run, but went into syndication right away. The fans couldn’t get enough of the highway hijinks, as evidenced by the plethora of merchandise sold during the show’s heyday. Eager fans snapped up Baker and Ponch dolls, motorcycle replicas, lunch boxes, school supplies and toy sets (complete with helmet and handcuffs). Rosner, Estrada and Wilcox reunited for a very special made-for-cable movie, CHiPs ‘99, that earned decent ratings and reminded all of the wonder that was 1970s TV.
If you tuned in regularly to watch this beloved pair of patrol officers back in the day. we welcome your thoughts in our comments section, as we tip our hats to these fictional heroes who entertained us so, here at Retroland.