He’s one of the few people who has his own action figure and he knows what it feels like to be mobbed by a crowd of adoring women.
He’s Larry Wilcox, one half of the glossy, motorcycle-riding highway patrol duo from the hit TV show “CHiPs.” Wilcox starred as officer Jon Baker alongside Erik Estrada as officer Frank “Ponch” Poncharello in the series which premiered in 1977.
Both Wilcox and Estrada will be in Nashville this weekend at Music City Center as part of the three-day Wizard World Comic Con. The event gives fans a chance to meet and greet some of their favorite stars.
“When you do these things, you have fans who become 12 years old again in a matter of seconds,” Wilcox told the Standard in a phone interview Tuesday. “In some cases you have a middle-aged woman who is there with her husband and she is literally shaking because she was in love with one of our characters when she was little. It can present an interesting dynamic.”
Much like “Gilligan’s Island” gave men the question of “Ginger or Mary Ann?” the question of “Jon or Ponch?” was one women were asking during the popularity of “CHiPs.”
“There was one demographic that wanted to go to bed with Ponch and one that wanted to marry Jon,” said Wilcox.
“CHiPs” enjoyed its heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s using a formula which might best be described as a combination of police work and “Little House on the Prairie.” The episodes were wholesome, the criminals were never too nasty, and the California sun provided levity among the El Camino freeway chases.
“CHiPs wouldn’t work today, absolutely not,” said Wilcox when asked if the show could hold its own against the bloody crime dramas of today. “The buddy stories between Ponch and Jon are too dated. The show wouldn’t succeed unless the story was dramatically changed. It wasn’t too long ago my wife and I sat down and watched an episode we probably hadn’t seen in 15 years. After it was over, she looked at me and said, ‘That was pretty dorky.’”
While appreciative of the fame brought by the show, Wilcox admitted it definitely inhibited his daily life when “CHiPs” was at its peak. Now more than three decades later, he says he isn’t noticed as much and he welcomes that obscurity.
“For me, I have a really wonderful time with anonymity,” said Wilcox. “For me, it’s really difficult to have a conversation when someone is crying or panting all over you.”
Wilcox said Comic Con in Nashville is the last event this year where he and Estrada are scheduled to appear together so many collectors will likely attend because they don’t know when this opportunity may arise again.
“These collectors are really passionate about what they’re collecting,” said Wilcox. “Some of them will take a picture out of plastic and not even want you to touch it. They will lay it down and want you to sign right here in one spot, then they’ll put it back in the plastic.”
Wilcox was just 23 when he landed the role of officer Jon Baker. Before that, he played the role of Dale Mitchell in the syndicated series “Lassie.”
“It always impresses me when someone comes up to me and says they became a policeman because of ‘CHiPs,’” said Wilcox. “For me, it was a really intriguing time as a youth. I was trying to figure out who I was and all of a sudden you’re thrown on stage and people are admiring you and want to be around you and you aren’t sure why. But among all that, it’s important to remember you’re just a product and you don’t want to mix up your identity with your product marketing. I think I was happy I had an action figure. It means I’d been validated. But everything has a shelf life. ‘CHiPs’ was a really fun show that took the high ground for policemen and interaction with people. There came a time when I knew I needed a different meal, a different menu.”
Wilcox made guest star appearances on TV shows such as “M*A*S*H,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Love Boat.” He starred in movies such as “Dirty Dozen” and “The Dalton Gang.” And he’s done his share of producing, including the award-winning TV series “The Ray Bradbury Theater,” which ran on HBO and USA Network for five years.
A longtime Los Angeles resident, Wilcox is now channeling his energy toward distribution and is working to deliver content ranging from school curriculum to TV shows to mobile devices and social media sites. He says the rules of access are constantly changing and digital distribution is the new muscle man in the room.
“People don’t want to be told they have to wait till Tuesday at 8 p.m. to watch a show,” said Wilcox.
Comic Con is this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25-27. Wilcox and Estrada are scheduled to appear all three days. Other stars include Danny Trejo, Drake Bell, John Schneider, Tom Wopat, Catherine Bach, Lou Ferrigno, Candice Patton, Roman Reigns, Jewel Staite, and Adam Baldwin.
Show hours are Friday from 3 to 8 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.wizardworld.com/home-nashville.html.
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