“CHiPs” TV Icons Still Own the Road: Larry Wilcox Looks Back on the Ride
“I owe the public a good performance . . . the best I can give.”
That’s the heartfelt message actor Larry Wilcox once said about his lengthy ride alongside fellow castmate on television’s classic CHiPs series.
Besides Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul on Starsky & Hutch, two of TV’s most popular and macho all-American actors-as-law-enforcement teams (also one blond; one dark-haired) were Wilcox and Estrada on CHiPs.
This series first aired on NBC from 1976 to 1981 — and featured Larry as Officer Jonathan “Jon” Baker, and Erik playing Officer Francis (“Frank”) Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello — two California highway patrolmen. Estrada is a native of New York’s Spanish Harlem. His first acting break came when a fresh new face was required to costar with Pat Boone in the film, The Cross and the Switchblade. Wilcox was born in San Diego, and brought up in Wyoming, with horseback riding and lasso-rousing as second nature to him.
As such, an episode of CHiPs, titled, “The Rustling,” displayed Wilcox’s rodeo skills, putting him against a steer that had strayed onto the freeway that he patrolled with Estrada on the series. Many episodes of CHiPs utilized the more humanitarian aspects of law enforcement, which contributed a great deal to the show’s success.
For example, in another episode, “Dog Gone,” the two policemen befriended an injured dog named Muffin; while in a segment called “Hitch-Hiking Hitch,” Ponch found himself interacting with a slightly larger animal: a St. Bernard. In yet another animal-oriented entry on the show, Erik and Larry met up with an elephant. Additional fun episodes featured other classic TV characters, like the very fictional H.R. Pufnstuf, who had his own NBC series — on Saturday mornings (as opposed to Saturday nights, when CHiPs mostly aired).
Besides The Cross and the Switchblade, Estrada appeared on the big screen in movie classics like The New Centurions, Airport ’75, Midway, and Trackdown. His TV credits include classic shows such as Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Kojak, McMillan & Wife, The Six Million Dollar Man, Medical Center, and Police Woman.
Like Estrada, Wilcox is a man of many talents. He’s a musician (who plays both guitar and piano) — and a genius businessman. Other than CHiPs, his acting credits include several groundbreaking TV-movies (one costarring Farrah Fawcett), and several feature films for Walt Disney. He’s appeared on many classic TV shows, including Lassie, Police Story, M*A*S*H, and The Streets of San Francisco.
Both actors are also leading men of good causes in real life.
Wilcox set up an NPO Hub website to benefit police officers killed in the line of duty and various philanthropic projects. In 2000, Estrada was named the international “Face” of the D.A.R.E. program (which advocates against substance abuse). He is also an advocate for the American Heart Association, the United Way, and the C.H.P. 11–99 Foundation, a nonprofit that provides benefits and scholarships for real-life California Highway Patrol family members, in addition to helping with funeral costs for fallen officers, as well as several more charities.
Of their original on-air time on CHiPs, and regarding their subsequent christening as immortal TV superstars, a modest Wilcox offers this insight:
“When I look in the mirror I don’t see a male icon. But while we were doing the show, we were supposedly male icons because we starred in a television series and there were then only just three networks, and our Nielson ratings were a high 19 to the 20s . . . numbers that are unheard of today. So, you’re reaching millions of people. And I always construed it as the networks spending millions of dollars branding you. So, you should be so lucky to have someone spend 10 or 20 million on your brand. And from that, I felt there was a responsibility as a so-called-male icon. And the responsibility was that those fans out there have a special place in their heart [for he and Estrada]. And we were able to serve some kind of meal for the appetite they needed. But I don’t
think it’s about signing autographs and being a ‘star.’ It’s about serving the hopes, and wishes and spirit of the fans.”
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