Well, you spend your younger life studying to be an actor and you accept roles in various TV series and TV commercials to work yourself up the ladder. You negotiate for better credits so one day it will say “Starring Larry Wilcox” but when you work with Charlton Heston or James Coburn or Lee Marvin, they usually get better billing of course because they have a bigger brand. First billing means your name is shown first and means you have earned some branding in the business and companies have probably spent millions of dollars branding your personal name. I have learned to accept such billing and continued to work on my brand.
When Rick Rosner asked me to star in CHIPS and find a co-star with him I was excited about the fact that I would receive first billing branding and finally have another star credit. In later years, the legal arguments were to bump my name off the first position but that did not happen. Here we are 40 years later and ME TV says starring Erik Estrada and the “blonde guy”. As my wife watched an episode with me on TV and saw the “blonde guy” reference she sat amazed that Me TV would be so rude, so ruthless, to do what the National Enquirer would do. She exclaimed, “Wow, not only did they do something that is immoral, there is a contract obligation to using your name face and likeness.” The world is full of an amazing amount of respect and courtesy these days as a TV Network chooses to run the good old “classics” while exhibiting the crass morality and sensitivity of 2015. Legal and morality are often stepping stones in the world of entertainment. Onward……with more shallow chameleons in the business world, one realizes that handshakes and integrity are not part of today’s etiquette in a world of wordsmiths and phony contract obligations. By the way, my wife also said, “Blondes have more fun.” Gotta love her.
CHiPs – 40 years later and re-runs:
Oh, the false intrigue and romance of memories. Well, my wife and dogs and cat sat waiting for the re-run of the old show CHIPS with fun anticipation. However, 10 minutes into the show and it still was not being shown other than a black screen which said the provider (ME TV ) is having technical difficulties and could not provide the content as of this moment. My wife commented, “of course,” tired of the abuse of the world. Maybe God spanked Me TV for their lack of manners. We chuckled.
Finally the show came on and I must say, the early episodes were really, well, let’s politely state, they were just simple. The police theme was a series of chases with a wheel that was to come off and create a violent wreck. The personal theme was the dog being shifted and hidden from the Sgt. Getraer played by good ole Robert Pine. We saw that Ponch lived in a motor home and ate ding dongs and was strutting his stuff in his briefs. We saw Jon lived in an apartment and drove a very cool right hand steer Austin Mini Cooper. I think the Mini Cooper caught people off guard and added some intrigue and perhaps someone mused, “Hey, what kind of guy is this Jon Baker?”
Actors like to layer intrigue in scripts that have none. In subsequent episodes the producers decided the mini cooper was not a man’s car and switched it to my pick up Chevy truck. A trite blue cupcake-a Chevy truck. But over time, even the truck became a kind of a character. However, I loved that little Mini Cooper and later bought one for my son Derek and shipped it all the way from London for him while I was filming the movie with Lee Marvin, Dirty Dozen. I can remember I just kept trying to create some depth, some interest, some intrigue in a very flat and shallow character and a script that was shallow and linear. I was always swimming up- stream with people who just wanted shallow trite packages and construed any input as some ego driven actor trying to “paint” when in fact I was simply trying to contribute……something.
While watching these two episodes of CHIPS I saw some old faces that I remembered like my stunt double Scotty Dockstedder who died recently homeless and living in the parks. The stunt Scott did with the lay down of the bike was scary and very dangerous and as I watched I remember him being concerned about high siding the bike at that speed. High siding is when the bike flips you over and then comes crushing down on you. The solution in those days was keep both brakes on and locked until you can separate yourself “completely” from the bike so it does not pop up and drag you with it. Scotty tore up his arm in that stunt but was OK I assume….as he and the boys probably headed to the Stuntman’s Bar for good ole male back slapping mixed with shots and beer. So sad that Scotty had to leave this world the way he did….so very sad. It is another reminder that we only have so much time with our friends and loved ones. Watching the show and Scotty’s sacrifices reminded me of all the people who I owe so much too as I got caught up in my own circle. Lew Saunders with his afro looked great and so the show and cast grew and continued. Later when female officers were brought in the show added some more shine and lipstick it gave a nice balance and pleasing visuals for a wider demographic of audiences. Cy Chermak did a nice job of that and steering the shows and keeping them on track The production values in the later shows are quite obvious unlike these early shows. The post production and music mixes had a lot to be desired but they were typical and representative perhaps of the late 70s and early 80s. However, I would humbly suggest that my 40 year Saturday afternoon quarterbacking review of CHIPS is time sensitive and not simply black and white.
It is and was hard for me to sit and watch this show with my wife, Marlene. I felt like I had told her about the days when I was a star and then we both sat down to watch this famous old icon TV Series called CHIPS and the horns drag on and the actors say corny lines and I look over at my wife hoping what she sees is perhaps different than what I see. However, her reaction says it all…….sorry Larry, wow this was written pretty poorly and puts you in questionable light……I mean is this a cartoon. It really was like watching Sponge Bob or something thereof, as an adult. Sorry…..but really makes me cringe to watch myself. The writing is so bad and so corny at times I just think……oh man…how in the heck are you going to deliver that corn-ball line. LOL The long chase scenes with the music that goes on forever and screeching horns for drama accents and grainy film is just awful….but the themes of the shows are of course positive and the relationship between Ponch and Jon is cute and how you would hope two respectful young men with integrity would act.
It takes a team of people to produce a quality show and each have to interface with all parties. People just do not understand that ALL of the actors have to be trained; ALL of the crew must be experts and the writing can make anyone look absolutely horrid and I mean anyone. As I look back 40 years and think poor Michael Dorn and the one liners they gave him were a nightmare for him and any actor. Robert Downey Jr could not have delivered his lines.
Today I watched the show with the snakes and the runaway bus, however, I was most excited to see the scene with my son Derek who played the little boy of the family whose father was killed in a car accident. It was so fun to see Derek in that show and to see his film credit at the end of the show.
I think some of the action shots and aerial shots of the motorcycles are excellent and I think the cast chemistry was the magnet for sure. I was actually kind of impressed with the riding that Jon and Ponch did on the show and how nimble “we” became with the motorcycles. I can easily spot the stuntmen in certain shots but the camera angles and mount shots were done well for the day as they had no GoPros or DSLR cameras to mount everywhere. Every shot was some big Panasonic Camera or an Arrie 35 mm camera with bloop cover for sound noise.
Robert Pine’s character was narrowly defined and he plays his role well as it was usually at the podium giving Sergeant like instructions. I know that this same old acting menu of being the Sergeant for Robert became old hat and uncreative. Kind of like eating pancakes for two months straight. They really needed to expand his character more. There were attempts here and there but nothing seemed to get more widely defined and more interesting and challenging for Robert. They did try to bring in his wife as a character but they did not do much with her. Robert was and is a well trained actor and it was a shame he did not receive a better creative menu to sample.
These kinds of defined maps for characters and background is what adds depth and evolution and character arc to a script. Layering in nuance and mannerisms and walks and such help but the writers and producers have to understand how to add velocity to these choices so the stories are much more dimensional. MASH was a TV Series I worked on that did exactly this, and as an actor, when I arrived, it was a lot of deep discussions on the characters and the choices and the subtext and what one might do with a prop and a glance or a piece of candy. In the movie the Last Hard Men I chose to such on candy canes in the movie every time Barbara Hershey appeared. I also chose to make him a degree off with his hat and walk instead of the way it was written as a macho man….trite and heroic. The character had dimension when I was done. This is the constant battle for an actor who wants to put his signature on every moment of on screen time. Even light and thin themed shows like CHIPS and LASSIE can add nuance and subtle signatures. It may not warrant a dramatic performance but it most definitely warrants a “signature” of some kind. Understanding the writer’s intent, the vector of the show, and the character’s arc are just the beginning of learning how to break down a script and to begin adding one to 20 items that may or may not enhance the show and help with the writer’s intent.
Of course all of the other characters bring back special memories.
When Fritz (Lew Saunders) runs back to his car, my wife said, “Wow…you can sure tell he is an athlete by the way he runs and carries himself.” I guess that means I am chopped liver or the blond chopped liver. LOL
Some of the extras bring back lots of memories because the extras were my good friends. I used my team roping friend and partner Gary Stanley as my stand in and he was also used in the show here and there. They wrote a script about rodeo and roping and that show was fun because Gary and I got to rope a lot and we got to use our own horses and rent them to the production company. (Greed) Gary Stanley, was injured on the show and I have not seen him in years. I see me putting him in a headlock as we improvised walking out of the briefing room in once scene and it reminded me we tried to have fun. Actually I think I was working hard in some of these shows to add some depth and it just was not part of the pastel color scheme if you will but that does not mean you quit trying. These early shows were a form a “light-Disney with some action” and drama and acting or thinking it required Marlon Brando kind of ran against the grain. That is not my suggestion in this narrative but I still firmly believe that adding subtle nuance creates a more favorable “signature”. Vic McCain was another good extra and friend. He was a real handsome young man and could easily have been one of the stars. From time to time you see him in the briefing room usually near the handsome tall car chippie, Brodie (Baricza) Greer. I have run into Vic recently as he lives in the So Cal area still. Brodie Greer came to the re-union and was a blast and an entertaining soul filled with handsome humility. Brodie was also a very fine athlete. Rosey Greer as one of our famous guest stars was fun and of course, one enormous body from his old NFL days. Paul Link and Randi Oakes, Michael Dorn, Breanne Leary and Lou the Mechanic had not been cast yet. Luckily they came along later to add more to the menu. I can remember having many conversations with Lou or with Paul about subtext and indirect action…metaphors and such….all indulgent crap an actor learns to implement as part of his or her signature. Now I laugh at my own passion to paint oil with water colors but I do see it here and there and it privately makes me happy. Sometimes it is my acting and sometimes it is something another actor is doing that I suggested. Teamwork! As I look back to the various cast members I felt like artistically, that Grossie and Lou the Mechanic were my favorites and had the biggest upside because there could be a catalogue of nuance with them. My manic marketing mind so enjoyed looking in the scripts for their scenes to see if I got to act with them or not because I knew we could discuss and mentally masturbate about the scenes and the so called subtext.
These early shows had a group of producers and writers that were fired which is painful for many and later Cy Chermak came in with his new writers and production staff. The show changed a lot when Cy came in as he was a seasoned producer. TV shows are a producer’s medium and Cy really put lipstick on the pig if you will….and did it in so many ways. Cy’s talents were in post production and in guiding the scripts I think. He kept the show on focus and had some “passion” like all of us about his perspectives. I really believe the show was successful in a large part due to Cy Chermak. I keep promising to do an interview with Cy for our DVD real of the reunion that Sue Walsh did such a nice job of doing for all of the cast and fans. I hope to finish that interview in the next few weeks as Cy has agreed.
I think the first two shows I watched suggested some interesting timing that was starting to evolve amongst the cast. Erik was not a trained actor and so he was often a work in progress on the set. Timing is everything with an actor….timing for another actor to pick up his cue or to remember his line, timing for him to hand you an envelope or prop; timing for him to zip his coat on the punch line, timing for him to exit stage left so the other actor can enter from the stage right etc. Let me politely say that timing on our show was an evolving work in progress. However, having said that, I feel that he picked up on the nuances quickly and over time our exchanges with nuance were fun and charismatic. I actually liked the two characters, Jon and Ponch, and really enjoyed their chemistry.
Stream of Consciousness – (As I sat on the couch and looked at this young guy (the blond guy) on my TV widescreen it was weird. I am no longer that young guy…and I really do not recognize him but you know what……I actually liked that kid….he was kind of natural…….woops….not nice to brag about yourself…and that IS YOU Larry.)
Anyway, by far and away that “Chemistry” was the STAR, notice I said STAR, not STARS, of the show CHIPS. As that wonderful chemistry spread amongst other cast members we began to have a team. A team is always the most successful, unless one person wants to be king of the mountain and then the team is divided and eventually shelf life is cut short. That is why people use predictive modeling to suggest the end goal and the TEAM that is warranted to accomplish longevity. What most people do not understand is that when two actors are on screen and one is good and one is bad……THEY ARE BOTH BAD. You cannot work well alone as you must have the character opposite you to stimulate nuance and improvisation that over time define more hues of the character. If I screw up a line for Ponch or vice versa, it screws up the cutting of the scene and looses momentum. For me, my perspective, if you will, is that I could see these early episodes of the show not quite working well with timing and such…..and it would eventually come together over time and would create a charismatic interface with the non tangible audience sitting watching one of the three choices for TV (NBC, ABC or CBS)…..and that relationship is not easily defined in a timely and thus profitable manner, but that digital relationship of holding hands with the audience is the formula for success. When digital chemistry transcends dimension the success quotient in geometric and so when chemistry on the set was good and on screen it was good it would eventually move from the TV Screen in your living room to your heart and soul sitting as an audience on your own couch. This was the magic or target. In retrospect, it is sad that someone wanted to be King of the Mountain.
I also noticed, surprisingly, that these first two shows had a lot for Officer Jon Baker to do, and I had forgotten that producer Rick Rosner, had actually been very fair to the character of Jon Baker in these early episodes. I do not feel like that kind of balance or theme continued but I must say….i was a bit shocked at how much Jon had to do. Thank you Rick Rosner.
Little did I know that Lassie, CHIPS, and The Ray Bradbury Theater, The Last Hard Men and Dirty Dozen, the Dorthy Stratten Story- the Death of a Playmate and others would be some of the highlights of my acting, directing and producing career. I think back at the time they asked me to do CHIPS and I said no. I was an up and coming actor and working pretty consistently and getting good reviews for my work. I believed that this would continue forever and I would be able to dictate my future, my finances, my health and the prosperity of my family. In many ways, I was so ill prepared for the pompous and indulgent life of a young millionaire celebrity and believe me, that boomerang took its course. For every day that I laughed, indulged and lusted, someone cried in loneliness and despair. For every dollar I made somewhere, somebody lost a dollar. For every day I felt like I was born with wings someone was experiencing the Angel of Death. If and when I write a book, this IS the story, a happy and sad story of the parallels of winning and losing in a synchronous wave form of which are interconnected, and are complex and very detailed. This was a five year long carnival with lots of rides and lots of joy and lots of tragedy. The joy is the patina of public relations.
Actors always act like all things are great…rich, full of choices, glamour, fast and furious lives……and in most cases these are all fiction. The real stories of these times are usually in conflict with the illusion that an actor or public relations person wants you to believe. The act of constant public relations and diplomacy becomes in part the mastery of the art of lying. Sometimes the transition of the actor’s public relations life becomes his or her real tangential life unfortunately and that is the sickness of illusion, ego and reality all mixed in to a confusing bi-polar recipe that may or may not untangle one day.
Recently I did a red carpet event with my wife and it had the hordes of cameramen taking our photos and the flashes flashed she said, “is this weird again…I mean don’t you think this is surreal. Is this a life you want again Larry.” I looked at her sadly and in her eyes and said, “No.” We then went upstairs to a free and wonderful dinner, had champagne, told a few stories to other actors and listened to a lot of actor me, me, me stories searching for meaning and then drove home and talked about our 2 daughters and 3 boys as we like to call them and pondered the choices of each child and their trajectories in this life cycle and or dimension. May we be better parents and teach our children to be better gardeners of the “flower patch”.
My legacy is my children and loved ones and friends. Sue Walsh of course is one of those cherished and loyal relationships. My old family friends from Wyoming, candid and in your face at times are other great relationships. And of course my employer which is in fact my fans who I humbly respect and I hope that I will always be sensitive to the child in your hearts no matter what your age. The exciting dimension of experiencing our chemistry was fun and one that I was very lucky to experience in this life time. Thank you for indulging me and hanging on while I drove the bumper car.
Gratefully and humbly….Larry and Family who have all won awards and scars from CHIPS.