In 2011 and early 2012 Sue Walsh talked to me about doing a CHIPS Reunion and I dubiously listened. My concerns included things like the show is too old; no one will come; what is the product you will sell or offer, and why would we or anyone want to do this. I thought, will any of the actors even come to a CHIPSReunionand who in the hell is going to pay for all of this risk? I have not seen some of these actors since the show was on in the early 80s. Wow!
The discussion continued over many months and finally Sue Walsh and Dayna Budde asked me to meet them inLos Angelesfor lunch. We met and discussed this theoretical idea in more detail and began listing the deliverables and action items I am accustomed to discussing in business.
Sue began to rally support and her friends began to get enthused. I was still very nervous for her because the budget was expensive and renting not one, but TWO, conference rooms at the Hilton Hotel at LAX was expensive. Then she would have another $10,000 to $20,000 in equipment for the production of all of this. How could she make this work? What would she sell because there would be no ROI (Return on Investment) so was she willing to spend her own money…..for nothing?
September arrived and anxiety began to show its ugly face in multiple circles. As an older parent, and an older businessman, I realized that drama is just part of life and often part of the O.D.D. (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) personalities waiting in the wings. Actors were wrestling with showing up; equipment costs were prohibitive; sponsors were not responding; nay sayers were wallowing in their hope for failure; travel expenses and scheduling became issues for some along with health issues; shipping of materials and promotional supplies; accounting and legal rights; personality conflicts and stars rights; Erik Estrada would not return phone calls. The negatives began…..how do you have a reunion without Erik? Well, this was a charity event for policemen killed in the line of duty and their families. This was a charity event for Kids at Risk at theOptimistSchool. This was a charity event for our fellow cast member, Bruce Penhall in honor of his son, Connor Penhall. Let us all take the high road!
Well it all boiled down to September 15th, 2012 for the CHiPs Reunion, the 35th Anniversary. The focus of the well thought out event was charity and family and the star of the evening was a hybrid made up of sincere sensitivity; philanthropy; and a truly loving and giving team of producer, writer, actors, fans and media. It was a beautiful shared family event for all of those who took the high road of wanting to simply hug a friend today and from yesteryear; to say sorry or thank you and to offer their shared heart of kindness to all. It was in honor of the late Connor Penhall.
It would be so minimalistic and cold to simply share with you the entire itinerary when the spontaneity of the exchanges was such a richly colored and a deeply layered slice of life. As people began to come out of their closet and share, speak openly, and love one another without the worry of ego, stars, one- upmanship and vulnerability, the evening unfolded into a love fest. On one hand, the actors and producer had gone through so many obstacles and sacrifices over 6 years of filming, so a reunion could have been a sensitive and dangerous trek but it turned out perfect. The fans were diverse and each one represented the miracle of mankind. I think the actors enjoyed each of them as the fans reciprocated with respect for the actors and producer. People today often forget that TV in the late 70s and early 80s was THE medium. Almost everyone watched the three channels of ABC, NBC and CBS. Ratings were off the charts for shows like CHIPS and it was sold and syndicated in over 100 foreign countries for multiple decades. That is branding and marketing that would cost many millions of dollars. We were all so lucky to be part of that Golden era of TV where we touched souls without ever literally touching anyone yet our spirits seemed to have reached through the magical TV screen.
Having starred in this TV series of yesteryear, the reunion was an amazing event for me to observe. Often I felt like I was outside my body and watching you all perform. I could hear and feel the “spirit” of the evening when a FAN would get up and with the childhood anxiety and emotion overtaking their adult voice, they would ask a question to a hero of their past. That quivering voice, that emotion, that vulnerability was sacred and for me warranted so much respect. I could temporarily see that small boy or girl with their sparkly eyes hoping to ride the motorcycle on CHIPS or meet the actors. I knew the life story layered beneath that question in front of the microphone was a long Novel of life and the door could easily be thrown open to a naked child psyche. It was a time to LISTEN deeply as you could hear the heart pounding and the emotion rushing up the scarred larynx. I also came to realize that CHIPS was an escape tool for many abused kids who need escapism and denial to survive. Sometimes television is magic, sometimes it is funny or sad, sometimes it is medicine or time travel for the soul, but often CHIPS was a Disney like HEALING for all of us.
One of fan’s questions was about our training as actors. I did not answer it because the sugar needed to be shared and when people commented on their training it was refreshing and fascinating for me. It was really more fun to be a listener than to speak. My background as an actor…..well, I did plays in high school as a ham of sorts. I then studied acting with many teachers and at college and did plays. I studied drama at theBeverly HillsMusicAcademywith Lois Auer,PierceCollegewith Jayne Hawkins, and atCalStateUniversity, Northridge.
I remember one very talented acting coach inLos Angeles, David Alexander, who I studied with for many years. He had many famous actor students over his history and I was very lucky to have studied with this virtuoso talent. David Alexander taught many of the drama coaches that other actors studied under. He taught us the depths of psychological analysis of a character and how to write bibles and fulfill the writer’s intent and a lot of other tools for improving one’s creative choices for a character. Sometimes, for example, as an exercise, we would focus on a visualization-i.e. being in a steam bath too long and the effect it had on your gestures and your voice and the transformation of the actor was often impressive. He taught us how to use visuals and to create our own illusion which would often be perceived by the audience as something different. Imagine as an actor sitting in a steam bath and feeling exhausted and talking accordingly. Imagine then using that visual context while doing a scene in the kitchen with your wife. The viewer might see this as a very interesting DRUNK contrary to what is actually taking place in the actors mind. Anyway, the tools were fun and full of psychological indulgence. Often the Bible that you write on your character was much longer than the script. I remember talking to Peter O’Toole and the late Vic Morrow about character Bibles and how they did the same thing. Each actor has his own way of prepping a script and I studied this for many years.
Sometimes I would share these insights with Erik Estrada who had not been exposed to these types of tools. It was fun to share with him and watch it bring about interesting results. With Erik, I thought that if someone would have nurtured him with these tools, he would have blown people away. The interesting part of any character is the arcane choices he makes from time to time versus the usual white bread approach that is required in some shows. I guess that is why sometimes, oblique people are the most interesting actors. James Dean and Marlon Brando surely made arcane and oblique choices in their lives! My point in this narrative rambling is that each of the characters on CHIPS has studied in various ways and some continued with acting and some move on into new professions. A TV Production is a bunch of dynamic gears all trying to get in synch with each other in a utopian state and never quite reaching that state. The legal, the accounting, the production, the damn actors, the stunts, the makeup, the lighting, the transportation, the grips, crew, the post production, all combine into one giant event and in the CHIPS days one week or episode cost around $1 Million. So any problem with any personality became financially problematic and compounding if it continued. Because of the layers of obstacles, often anyone other than the stars would receive or warrant minimal attention according to the production team.
Here on CHIPS, we had a cast of actors, in most cases, who were equal or greater in talent than the two stars and yet were sometimes treated with cavalier apathy or patronized with a line or two here and there. The self esteem takes a big blow in a production when one caters to the stars. The other actors get little or no publicity, they get little or no requests for their autograph, they get little or no request for another acting job, and they continue studying acting in the background hoping for their next gig that might get them over the hump. Many actors realize they are not leading men, but that does not mean they are not stars or talented actors. They are doing a job, and a job warrants recognition. The life cycle of a product on the shelves is not long, no matter what the product is and for an actor(the product) he wants to have a long shelf life (star or long working actor) and be recognized and hired as a real talent.
In my role as Jon Baker, the character was pretty much Larry Wilcox. As stated on stage at the reunion, being an intense actor in the TV show, CHIPS , would not have worked, even though my young evolving acting ego surely wanted to do so from time to time. Once on CHIPS I recall an intense acting scene I did with a young lady who was cast as my girlfriend. At the end of the scene the crew all clapped with an over pouring of approval for the good acting in the scene. The astute producer, Cy Chermak, cut it out because he said that is not what CHIPS was about…..some heavy relationship with intense needy acting. He was right…..but the scene was excellent. LOL.
I often thought what if Robert Pine or Brodie or one of the other actors was Jon Baker, what Jon would have been like. My point was and is……I was lucky and I am grateful because I sincerely know that each of them could have brought their own brilliance and nuance to a character. Having said that, I was so enthralled with their conversations the night of the reunion and I will forever remember them , their gestures, and their words. I watched them and I watched the fans. It was such a gift. We all came from such different upbringing and cultures. I watched people talk freely and indulgently as if there were no time constraints, no news show or authority figure telling them they had 3 minutes to spit out memorable bullets.. No one was saying you have to make it crisp and to the point. There was no one stealing the stage or attention. These were fans….talking as they wanted……there were actors…..talking as they wanted…and there was the leader, the producer, talking freely and reminiscing. As the conversations matured with warmth of time, and the autograph sessions began, the actors each settled into their present day psyche. They seemed to exhale the baggage of yesterday while holding on to the wonderful memories and inhaled the beauty of these new and long running friendships with unconditional love. It was a healing event filled with candor and mutual respect. The baton has been passed, and I am so deeply grateful that I could be one of the participants. In my life I have had three groups of special people. One group was the people ofWyomingwho gave me a leg up in life; the other group was the Marines I served with inVietnamand the cast and crew of CHIPS and their fans. This wonderful evening brought closure and happiness too so many and let me share with you how the CHIPS dust continues to be sprinkled.
This event was in the name of Connor, the son of Bruce Penhall, whose young life was tragically taken by a drunk driver this year. Bruce Penhall did the show when he was working on his second World Championship and had a lot of business interests going on. Bruce did not need this show and it was a nice short journey for him but it was not his life. His gracious participation in this event was wonderful and even though Bruce has moved on in his life on many successful fronts, it was so nice for all of us to honor the spirit of Connor Penhall. As I drove home at midnight or so, with all of my speakers, amplifiers, microphones, lights and stands and cameras, I thought about Connor. I did not know Connor but I felt like I knew him that night, and that his healing spirit was present.
Michael Dorn went on to become a much bigger star in Star Trek. He became not only famous but did some nice directing while purchasing his own groups of fighter jets as a personal hobby. It was so nice to see and hug Michael as he gave so much and got so little from CHIPS. Lew Saunders was another one of the actors who gave so much. He was a fine athlete like Brodie Greer and both of them were always happy and giving.
Some days the assistant director would call them in for a 7am call time and then not use them in a walk by scene with no lines at 6pm. This kind of stuff happened due to many scheduling parameters and over the years I began to defend them behind the scenes as their advocate. My advocacy nurtured good friendships with these people and soured some of my relationships with the studio. One time I even filmed a stunt that went wrong and gave my film to a news crew because I was so proud of my shooting. That dumb naïve punk move cause many legal ripples later on. I was not the most favorite “defense attorney” during these times but I was being loyal I thought. Youth? My point is that these actors on stage the evening of Sept 15th were all very special actors and very special people and my heart cares for them. Oh believe me, I was not any billy boy scout .as there were many times I threw my own tantrums and cause unnecessary problems to add to the Larry Wilcox recipe.
Brianne Leary was a special girl and it was so nice to see her shine and to share that patina with her fans and her husband in the audience. The writers always did a great job with the comedy of Lou Wagoner as the comedic surgeon-like mechanic. He enjoyed acting and did a fine job. Robert Pine’s family came from the acting area with his wife, daughter and now famous son Chris Pine. Robert Pine has become the Sergeant of our group in so many ways. Paul Link is the consummate artist who has written, acted and lived the deep meaning of the word, resilience in life and in the entertainment world. Brodie Greer was witty and funny and very entertaining. Michael Dorn was a gentleman and showed an enormous amount of humility for what he has accomplished in his own career as he demurred to others with etiquette. Lew Saunders is still a big handsome man filled with love for mankind. Larry Mollin, the writer, was articulate and insightful while Shelly Levine the famous wardrobe man on CHIPS was warm and giving as usual. Oh my goodness, the stories Shelly has to share but did not. Jack Carpenter, the camera truck driver and owner was quiet as he has become the man to hire in his field. His quiet humility subtly displayed success as elegantly as possible. Bruce Penhall was famous before CHIPS, and after CHIPS and he benevolently and respectfully plays in our playground even though his playground is much bigger, but you would never know it. Cy Chermak was bright, funny and extremely insightful. I was so happy he attended and brought his beautiful daughter Bonnie, a successful entertainment attorney. We all hugged good byes, fans….and actors the spirit moved on. I cannot wait to do follow-up interviews on camera to add to this SPECIAL with many of the actors and crew members who were not there.
The next morning after the Chips Reunion I had to get up and drive my sonChadto a basketball tournament inLong Beach. It was over an hour drive and I was tired after arriving home with the truck packed at 1:30 am. However, the HEALING continued. There was this very tall and large bodied African American Woman standing at the entrance to the tournament where you buy your tickets. She got so excited that the CHiPs guy was at this “inner city” basketball tournament and she almost cried. She went on to tell me about her poverty as a kid, and her only escape was CHIPS. She said .”Even today as I stand here and look at you Jon Baker, I see the highway…….you were my JOURNEY, my Journey OUT! The rest of the day, she would look at me teary eyed and reiterate multiple times with her inner city voice…..Yep….I ‘m tellin ya…..the JOURNEY…..the JOURNEY….yep, the JOURNEY. She seemed healed with our exchange and it was so rewarding to me. It was like theReunionevent was now following me around sprinkling CHIPS dust on adults who had come through the JOURNEY of Life.
My comments about Cy Chermak being the producer who was the true magician were earnest and honest. I was a young man doing CHIPS and I had a lot of issues as a result of tragedies inWyomingandVietnamand my emotional IQ was Zero. I liked to push the envelope in life afterVietnamand the Marines. Living on an emotional edge was where I felt the most comfortable. Racing cars, setting land speed records, riding in the rodeo, having affairs, fighting, danger, and being belligerent at times were all part of my evolution. The mercurial Larry Wilcox was a handful and no authority figure was going to get in my way afterNam. Let me simply say that Cy Chermak weathered my storms and he made me a better person as a result of his resilience. The healing continues.
Yesterday I drove back to the Hilton to have a meeting with the organizer, Sue Walsh, and review the event, action items and the goals. We discussed accounting and the money raised for the charities and the proper way to distribute such on behalf of Connor Penhall and family. We then went on to talking about how special the event seemed to be and how intimate it was for all. Sue then shared some very sad events of her youth and the heavy scars and pain from such. She shared how CHIPS was her life jacket in a life full of tragedy. We hugged deeply, and I knew her spirit was lighter and healthier. She smiled with tears in her eyes and we said thank you in unison. She may or may not have realized the thank you and the HEALING was so deeply mutual.
My own life was laced with lots of my own tragedy but I grew up inWyomingso people say….get over it and move on. I think the CHIPS Family gave me a “bridge” to LIFE. Thank you!
So, as Seven Mary Three (call letters on CHIPS for you non viewers), Jon Baker says thanks for being my maternal and paternal surrogates. Thank you fans, thank you cast, thank you Cy Chermak, thank you CHP, thank you Optimists, thank you fans, thank you Sue Walsh and Dayna Budde and staff…..it was a great ride. So……..let’s ROLL AGAIN…..someday, before it is too late!
Thank you for the ongoing CHIPS dust and your warm spirit CONNOR.