When Larry Wilcox, 32, the boyish blond patrolman Jon Baker of CHiPs, NBC’s Sunday night cycle drama, got married two weeks ago, there was, well, a cop-out. Erik Estrada, 31, the series’ throttle-twisting heartthrob Ponch, was conspicuously missing at the swank Beverly Wilshire Hotel as cast and crew congratulated Larry and bride Hannie Strasser, 31, a onetime CHiPs assistant sound technician. “I gave it a lot of thought and decided not to invite him,” says Wilcox of the feud that has made the CHiPs set at times more drama-laden than the program. “There’s no point going around telling people Erik is my best chum,” he confides, “because he’s not and never will be.
“After all,” Larry continues, “Erik didn’t invite me to his wedding four months ago nor to his recent birthday party. I wanted to show more class and invite him anyhow, but it went against my grain.” At times the friction has grated so many gears that Wilcox worried it would show on TV, “like somebody trying to steal a scene, or snickering off-camera.”
Three years after the series—and the fighting—began, CHiPs has careened into the Nielsen Top 10, and the producers have become lavishly even-handed in pampering the stars. Though even Wilcox admits CHiPs’ appeal is due primarily to Estrada’s Latin-lover looks, both draw down the same $25,000 per episode. When Erik received a $100,000 white Rolls-Royce Corniche after his near-fatal accident on location last year, Larry got a black one. “CHiPs is Erik’s vehicle, not mine,” concedes Wilcox, who is now branching into everything from Love Boat to Love Tapes—a romantic ABC movie airing May 9. “Erik’s the right man for the part.”
Larry, who was hired first, originally wanted another actor to play his motorcycle sidekick. “I thought it was asinine to pick someone just for being photogenic,” Wilcox snipes of Estrada’s selection from some 150 contenders. Worse, “You had two competitive actors needing to say, ‘Hey, my talent’s bigger than yours,’ ” adds Larry. “It was an ego problem. That first year we talked our problems over, sober and drunk. We’d get things squared away for a week or two, then the whole thing would start over.”
The tension did show signs of subsiding after Erik’s dramatic Kawasaki header during filming last August. Wilcox, one of the first to reach the critically injured Estrada, remembers “holding his hand to minimize the shock and telling him, ‘I really love you.’ ” Still, when Larry tried to visit Erik in the hospital, he wasn’t among the close friends and family allowed in. In December, when Erik married 39-year-old Joyce Miller, Larry adds, “I told him, ‘I hope this gives you the inner peace you need.’ But I must admit I haven’t seen a lot of changes. Erik still has a lot of pain in him. There are so many things that bother him, and sometimes people who are scared become mean.”
The 5’11”, 175-pound Wilcox and his inch-shorter, 15-pounds-lighter co-star have never come to blows. “We’re still sociable,” Larry insists. “We say good morning and sometimes we even have lunch together. But I’m frustrated over the whole matter. Erik and I are just totally different human beings, and I can’t get a good relationship going.”
Indeed, while Estrada is a novice cyclist from New York’s Spanish Harlem, the understated machismo of Wilcox doesn’t come from the special-effects department. A skilled biker, he performs all his own stunts, delights in revving his own three cycles over the hills near home and has met more highway cops for speeding than he has through CHiPs. He also races on the celeb auto circuit, recently finishing second to James Brolin in an off-road Jeep competition and sixth (he spun out three times) in the Long Beach Grand Prix won by Gene Hackman. Larry finds even more excitement as a paid-up member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and has competed as a steer roper since high school. “To me, it’s therapy, an escape mechanism,” says Wilcox. “I guess I’m just a frustrated cowboy.”
Born in San Diego, Larry moved to his grandfather’s Flying Diamond Ranch in Rawlins, Wyo. as an infant when his parents divorced. His bartender father died shortly thereafter, and his mother worked as a secretary and ballet teacher to support her four children. Larry’s two brothers still live in Rawlins, but his sister, Sharon, was shot to death 13 years ago when she was 23. “She wanted to leave her husband,” Wilcox recalls, “so he killed her—with their three kids looking on.” Institutionalized, he was later shot to death himself, and Larry’s mother is raising the children.
With no showbiz inclinations in school (except for playing electric organ in a rock band), Larry drifted to L.A. at 18 and worked odd jobs while studying piano and then acting. About to be drafted in 1967, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve and wound up “as scared as anyone else” for 13 months as an artilleryman in Vietnam. He survived by “diving into a hole quicker than anyone else. I didn’t care how many other guys were already in it.” Now he’s bitter about the war’s aftermath: “I saw some wonderful 19-year-olds get killed and then came back to hear Americans saying it was all a bunch of bullshit.”
He resumed his acting lessons in L.A. after his 1970 discharge, and a fling with predentistry courses at a local college convinced him he “didn’t have the manual dexterity for it.” Soon he was landing lucrative commercials for the likes of Old Spice and then spent two years on the syndicated Lassie before moving into Disney flicks and a slew of TV guest spots. His TV success paid for a 30-acre Thousand Oaks spread he shared with first wife Judy Wagner and their children, Derek, 10, and Heidi, 5, before the 10-year union ended in 1978. “Those two kids are the greatest contributions I have given the world,” Larry says. He sees them every weekend, and they’re getting used to new stepmom Hannie.
Larry and Hannie began dating three years ago, moved in together in December and are busy remodeling their 3,000-square-foot homestead on two Bell Canyon acres. One of the additions: a wine cellar for Larry’s $48 bottles of champagne and vintage Montrachet. A housekeeper visits twice weekly, but Hannie insists on doing all the cooking.
Next month the newlyweds leave for a month-long honeymoon to Hawaii, Australia and Japan, delayed by a tour for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (Larry advocates mandatory helmets). When he returns, he is eager to change his “Johnny Appleseed” reputation (“I know I look 13”) with more challenging roles—like the outlaw he played in NBC’s The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang. He also has big plans for his Flying Diamond Enterprises production company and wants to continue directing (he has done two CHiPs episodes). Sums up Wilcox: “Life can be a bore if you’re constantly walking sidewalks instead of a tightrope once in a while.”