November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

Unlike macho costar Erik Estrada, Larry Wilcox tended to keep his shirt on during his five-year stint on TV’s CHiPs, the crash-happy 1977-1983 motorcycle-cop series that zoomed up the disco era’s Nielsen rankings. But many fans, particularly women, were plenty fond of Estrada’s blond sidekick on the California Highway Patrol—as Wilcox was reminded when he began fending off e-mails to the Web site he put up this fall. “They write things like, ‘Can I sit on your motor?’ ” says a blushing Wilcox, now 51. “I let them know I’m a happily married man.”

These days, Wilcox’s high-speed chases take place on the information superhighway. He is a partner in three fledgling technology companies: Promise Net, an Internet and long-distance carrier in Atlanta; Dallas’s OneDigital, which markets online games and entertainment; and Salt Lake City’s MediaCore, which sells data-compression technology. He is also part owner of Slam Site, a flashy computer-game store near L.A. Wilcox keeps tabs on his 11 partners and 24 employees from an office in his ranch-style house in the San Fernando Valley’s Bell Canyon. “It’s great for him,” says Estrada. “He’s got the know-how.”

The father of five, married since 1986 to his third wife, Marlene Harmon, is also coming to terms with the legacy of CHiPs, which he quit in 1982 after clashing with Estrada and producers over his unchallenging role. He and Estrada, who have since patched up their differences (they even celebrated Christmas together a few years ago), revived their characters, Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, in CHiPs ’99, a TNT movie airing on Oct. 27. “For once there’s a little acting,” says Wilcox, who admits the original didn’t exactly require Laurence Olivier. “[The TNT movie] isn’t Hamlet, but it’s better than it was.”

Pals always knew that the intense ex-Marine aspired to more than CHiPs’s low-IQ action. Wilcox’s ambitions were nurtured in rural Rawlins, Wyo., where, starting at age 13, he branded cattle part-time to help his single mother, Marion, a secretary, raise him and his three siblings. Drafted at 19, he spent a harrowing year as an artilleryman in Vietnam, then returned and wed a high school classmate, Judy. They moved to L.A., where, he says, he “took every kind of job you could imagine,” including ditchdigging, before his night school acting classes paid off. In 1972 he won the part of Dale Mitchell on TV’s Lassie. Then, in ’77, CHiPs came calling.

As the show roared into the Top 25, its co-stars “were two roosters who became peacocks,” says Wilcox, recalling one on-set party during which Estrada “rode up on a motorcycle with a naked girl on the back, red lights flashing and siren blaring. It was like Studio 54 at its worst.” Then, in 1979, Wilcox and Judy were divorced. (Their daughter Heidi, 24, now works as Wilcox’s assistant; son Derek, 29, who recently earned a Ph.D. in intellectual history from the University of Chicago, lives nearby.) Wilcox soon wed Hannie, a CHiPs sound technician—a “bad match,” he says, that lasted 18 months and produced Wendy, 17, who lives with him. He and Estrada also squabbled. “It was hard for Larry to see Erik gobble up the spotlight,” says Robert Pine, CHiPs’s Sgt. Joe Getraer. Finally, Wilcox walked. (The series was canceled in 1983.) Producers “could have cast anybody who could say ’10-4′ and ‘Pull over!’ ” he says. “What did they need me for?”

Relegated to small roles in TV movies (he narrowly lost out to Don Johnson for the lead in Miami Vice), Wilcox switched to producing such projects as HBO’s The Ray Bradbury Theater. In 1982 he met Harmon while jogging. Not knowing she was a former member of the U.S. Olympic track and field team, he challenged her to a race. He lost, but he won her heart. “He’s so self-assured, but he can be incredibly sensitive,” says Marlene, now 36 and mother to Ryan, 5, and Chad, 3.

Turned on to high tech while working on a failed vitamin-company venture in 1992, Wilcox hopes to take MediaCore public in a few months. “Acting is too slow for Larry; his mind works faster than that,” says pal Pine. “One pursuit is never enough for him.”

Samantha Miller

John Griffiths in Bell Canyon

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