On March 20 at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, writer-director Dax Shepard publicly acknowledged the two men he said made his feature reboot of the classic TV series, CHiPs, possible. Naturally, he thanked one of the series’ original stars, Erik Estrada, who was in the audience that night, leading those of us in attendance to believe Estrada’s equally iconic co-star, Larry Wilcox, would be the second person acknowledged. He wasn’t: Shepard instead thanked his co-star, Michael Peña, who re-creates Estrada’s womanizing character, Officer Frank Poncherello, in the movie.
Wilcox’s absence from the event (and the movie) left many of us wondering why the congenial actor behind Officer Jon Baker wasn’t part of the festivities. Vulture tracked down Wilcox, now a philanthropist and digital entrepreneur living in the San Fernando Valley, to find out why he wasn’t involved in Warner Bros.’s comedic reboot of NBC’s hit cops-on-bikes drama, which ran from 1977 to 1983; and what his relationship is like with Estrada today; as well as how his military service in Vietnam prepped him for a career Hollywood; and how he had to make really, really sure that Tina Fey knew he was no longer “a hunk” before agreeing to play himself in a 2009 episode of 30 Rock.
We missed you at the CHiPs premiere and you’re also absent from the movie, in which your former co-star Erik Estrada has a cameo. Why?
I don’t want to indulge it too much. It’s a complex issue, but basically, I wasn’t invited to my own party.
Was this Warner Bros.’s decision? Or is there bad blood with Rick Rosner, who created the series and produced the movie?
I’m guessing it was not the studio’s decision, and likely Rick Rosner’s. I used to own the rights to CHiPs and actually a bunch of other stuff, too. I’ll just politely say that Rick is an older man who’s been in the business for many years, and he and I didn’t see eye to eye. I actually bought the movie rights to CHiPs from Ted Turner. And then [agent] Lee Gabler at CAA helped me in getting them sold to do a new series. Rick would always pop up and Turner would say, “We don’t believe he has a case, but he’s threatening a lawsuit.” So he essentially wouldn’t allow us to go forward. Then, about five years ago, I went back with my attorney to Warner Bros.’s, which by then had the film rights, and said, “I’d be interested in doing a CHiPs movie with Erik Estrada in an old-guy role with new and younger so-called heartthrobs.” And they said, “We already have a CHiPs project going here. It’s a $37 million movie.” We said, “This doesn’t need to be a $37 million movie! It’s a remake of CHiPs, not Gone With the Wind.” So that’s where all of this stems from.
So you haven’t seen the movie? I recall hearing that you’d been critical of the trailer at one point.
No, I haven’t yet seen it. Yes, I was signing autographs with Erik Estrada at one of the Comic Cons recently and was asked about the movie. I said, “I’ve only seen the trailer, and in it somebody rubs their genitals in another guy’s face. It looks like Dumb and Dumber on motorcycles, so I can only prematurely judge that.”
Does it hurt your feelings that you weren’t involved?
I was never talked to and approached, or asked to be involved. Listen, it was Dax’s project, so he has a right to do whatever he wanted to. I wasn’t offended by that. I’ve produced many award-winning shows like the Ray Bradbury Theater for HBO with Peter O’Toole and Jeff Goldblum. Sure, it would have been complimentary to my ego if he’d said, “Hey, we’d would love your input.” But it wasn’t required, and I don’t have a problem with that.
There have long been rumors about you and Erik not getting along. What’s your relationship like with him now?
I only really see him at signings and charity events. I do a lot of stuff with police agencies — producing videos for them and helping raise money, too. I have another company called NPOhub.com, and we focus on fundraising through texting for dollars. And as a result of NPOhub.com and Comic Con–type events, I see him, but that’s about it. Erik’s a funny character. In my youth, I referred to him as “problematic.” Why was that? Well, probably because of my own ego and identity crisis as a young male actor. I wasn’t sure how to handle a guy like him, who really was all about becoming a movie star. But as I’ve matured, I’ve realized he’s just an entertaining, smart-aleck guy.
I’m glad to hear that you’re still friendly, because I just really need to know that Ponch and Jon don’t hate each other.
[Laughs] Yeah, everybody wanted Ponch and Jon to be friendly.
Many people may not know you served as a Marine in Vietnam before CHiPs. How did that experience prepare you for a life in show business?
It prepared me in the sense that it taught me about abandonment. In Vietnam, we were really shown the most raw character of human beings because death was always there, sauntering around in the background. As a result, some people really stood up and some people were — I don’t like the word “cowards,” but they just couldn’t handle the pressure. And that’s okay, until it affects you personally. Then it gets ugly. In Hollywood, what I’ve found is a lot of similar lacking of character; people who are extremely articulate, but would kill your mother for money. So my radar is always up.
You also did a lot of rodeo horse riding before the series, and many of your own stunts, which by my calculations number in the thousands?
Yeah, I did most of them, but actors always say that. [Laughs] It’s part of their rhetoric. But, yes, I was in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, so I brought all my own horses and cattle to set when we needed them. And I’d ridden motorcycles all my life, so I did most of my own motorcycle riding in the show, but not the “planned wrecks.” I did a few unplanned wrecks though! I did all the jet-ski scenes, fighting scenes, and stuff like that. But the rough stunts were done by really good stuntmen. Paul Knuckles was the stunt coordinator at that time. There were some famous old stunt guys on the show who wanted to get their bell rung once a week. I never understood the mentality of wanting to be a stunt guy.
Did you actually train with a real highway patrolman before the series?
Erik and I both went through California Highway Patrol training. And we got to where we were pretty good. They always say, if you can ride a motorcycle slowly, then you really have talent because anyone can ride fast. Riding slowly is about balancing with brake and clutch, so we got very proficient. But Erik had a near-fatal crash where they thought he ruptured his aorta. I gave him first aid and I treated him for shock, which I learned in the military, and then they took him to the hospital and gave him his last rites.
I didn’t remember that, that’s terrible.
Yeah, and he lived! And didn’t have to have open-heart surgery. Of course, he used that whole thing as leverage to sue MGM and NBC; and then in the last year, negotiated me out of the television series the sixth year. I was a co-star for five years, and then for the sixth year, only Erik was the star.
Oh, yes, I’m remembering this now.
Yeah, Erik demanded it.
What was the reason again that Jon left?
He went “back to Wyoming.”
Ah, yes, right. The ol’ Wyoming write-out. Did you watch the series after you left?
One or two episodes. But that sixth season to me was all about Erik wanting to be the star, and they needed six seasons to sell it for syndication. So if Larry Wilcox was the sacrificial lamb to keep Erik Estrada on one more year, so be it. [Laughs]
Do you have any specific fond memories from the set? You pretty much had what most young, straight men would consider a dream job. You spent your days riding motorcycles and meeting hot women in bikinis.
[Laughs] Yes. I enjoyed the episodes I directed the most. We did Motocross racing and off-road riding — that was fun. And I got to have fun with cameras. Cameras weren’t as creative as they are now with all the camera mounts, but we did as much as we could with POVs and mounting shots and all that. But it was hard because in those days, we would shoot like ten pages a day.
That’s almost unheard of now for an hour-long drama.
Yes, you really have to have your act together as a director because there’s no time for mental masturbation. You have to get a master shot, a medium shot, two close-ups, and you’re out of there. With that kind of coverage, actors had to be prepared because you really have to move. And stunts took forever to shoot, and we didn’t have five cameras — only two or three. And the episodes cost around a million dollars each, which was big money back then. But there was one very bizarre day I remember. We were always out on that ugly, hot 210 Freeway, which was not completed at the time — all day, every day — wrecking cars and simulating traffic. And one day during lunch, I look down the road and here comes some guy going really fast on his motorcycle, sirens and red lights blinking. As he gets closer, I realize it’s Erik Estrada without a helmet on. And he’s getting closer and zooms by, and like typical Erik, he has a naked girl on the back of the bike.
And who was this young lady?
I don’t know, one of his favorite extras that week? [Laughs] The funniest moments were seeing him do stuff like that. And then we’d be standing in front of his motor home and see the antennas on the roof move back and forth when he stepped inside [with a woman]. He’d come out and ask about his hair, which he called his “feathers.” “Oh, are my feathers ruffled now?”
I can’t forget to ask about your cameo in the 2009 episode of 30 Rock, “Secret Santa.” How did that come about?
Alec Baldwin’s kids and my kids went to the same elementary school together here in the Valley, so I’d see him and his former wife quite often. Then the show called and said, “Hey, we want you to guest star as yourself on 30 Rock.” I said, “Really? Are you sure?” They said, “Yes, you’re Liz Lemon’s idol.” And I said, “She realizes that I’m not 25 anymore, right?” [Laughs] I didn’t want them to cast me and realize, “Oh my God, what are we doing?” I said, “I’ll come, but I want everybody to understand they’re not casting the hunk here.” We had fun.
Are you planning to see CHiPs this weekend?
I think I’ll wait and see it on demand. It’s funny, somebody asked, “Are you hoping it doesn’t do well?” No, I hope it’s successful, and I wish Dax and Michael good luck and congratulations for all the hard work. And again, I’ve only seen the trailer, so maybe the movie is great? You know, I started acting in Disney movies, then Lassie, and I did a bunch of movies-of-the-week. Then CHiPs came along, and I thought it was beneath me. I was a typical egotistical young actor more concerned with looking in the mirror and combing his hair. In retrospect, I’m really humbled. I got five years out of one of the top-rated shows ever. It was syndicated in 100 foreign countries. I produced the reunion special in 1999, and I directed two of the highest-rated episodes on the show, and it’s still airing on MeTV. My wife frequently asks me, “How much blood are you going to get out of that turnip?” [Laughs]
And you say, “As much as I can.”
That’s right. I’m grateful.