How a 70s TV Show Changed My Life…Really!
Those of us who are children of the 70s may not have had many TV stations to choose from, but we did have a lot of great shows. Back then, parents could park their kid in front of the TV and not have to worry about what they might see. The television set was the ultimate babysitter, and I sure spent a lot of time with it. As an only child, books and TV were my closest friends. As a child in a home where there was dysfunction, they were my escape from the bad times.
One show in particular captured me. It was called CHiPs, a TV series about two California Highway Patrol motor officers, their friends, and their adventures on and off-duty. Many kids have fond memories of playing Ponch & Jon on their bikes, their neighborhood streets standing in for the sunny LA freeways. The series had a huge following among children and I was no exception. I was 7 years old when it premiered on NBC. It was a light and often funny show, totally unlike today’s crime dramas, yet it connected with me on a deep level then and 39 years later still does.
It all started in 1977. I was 7, living in the Boston area with my parents and grandmother. An only child, I was quiet and shy, and spent most of my time in my room, playing alone.
My parents had problems, and my father wasn’t around much. I escaped through reading and watching TV. When I went to bed at night, I would often lie awake and listen to whatever my mother was watching on TV downstairs. One night it just happened to be a new show called CHiPs. I was hooked instantly even though I never actually saw an episode until Season 2, when it moved to Saturday nights and I was allowed to stay up late.
The actors and actresses who appear in TV shows will tell you it’s just a job, and understandably so, but to those of us who watch those shows week after week, season after season, it’s different. The characters that we let come into our homes week after week become like old friends. We draw inspiration and comfort from them. They make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us think, they make us believe anything is possible. That’s exactly what the gang from the Central LA CHP station did. Sensitive, kind Jon, mischievous and street smart Ponch, cool and witty Fritz, nerdy and put upon Harlan, awkward yet sweet Grossman, confident and vivacious Sindy and Bonnie, cool and handsome Bear and Turner, and Sgt. Getraer watching over them all with a mix of fatherly affection, exasperation and dry wit. Together their chemistry was magical.
I’d watch them and wish I could be like them. They always said and did the right thing. They looked out for each other, loved each other. It may sound sad, but those characters where the only positive role models I had aside from my grandmother. I had lots of aunts and uncles but half of them lived in another country and the rest, well I love them dearly, but we’re just not a super close family. I remember more than once watching an episode and thinking “I hope I am like them when I grow up and have friends like that.” Although Los Angeles was like a foreign, exotic land to a 7-year-old living in Massachusetts, the characters quickly became old friends. The show’s message, one of kindness, the importance of looking out for one another, diversity, acceptance and as cast member Paul Linke so perfectly put it, “solving problems with minds and hearts, not violence,” was one so many of us so desperately needed. Those characters gave me hope. One in particular, and the actor who played him, gave me much more.
Jon Baker, played by Larry Wilcox, was my favorite from the beginning. Jon was a Vietnam vet from Wyoming, a quiet, kindhearted man with a heart of gold who displayed compassion for not only those he helped, but often times the people he had to arrest as well. He accepted people for who they were, and went out of his way to help those in need. He cared and wasn’t afraid to show it. Something about the character resonated deeply with me, as did the actor who played him. Jon became my hero, and so did Larry. One weekend our Sunday paper ran a profile of him in its magazine. In it he talked about how important being a good father to his children was and how much he loved them. I clipped that article and had it taped to my bedroom mirror for years and years. My own father had problems with alcohol and my parents fought a lot as a result. I never had a daddy, only a father who was never around much. Most fans wanted to marry Jon, I just wanted him to be my dad!
Fast forward a few decades to 1996. The internet was brand new, websites were just starting to bloom, and I, still as big a fan of the show as ever at age 26, found an email discussion list dedicated to the show. I met some great people there, including the late Phil Bondelli, one of the show’s directors, and his wife, and some of the show’s crew. I started posting some fanfiction there, and it was received quite positively.
(Fanfiction, for those not familiar, is just stories based on popular TV shows, movies, and sometimes books. Star Trek was probably the first show to spawn fanfic, but if you drop by sites like fanfiction.net you’ll find it for just about every show and movie you can think of. Fanfic simply lets fans explore their “what ifs” and keep a show and its characters alive even long after it’s been cancelled.)
One day, I posted a story called “Always a Soldier”. It was about Jon Baker’s trip to Washington DC to see the Vietnam Memorial. The group loved it and Phil and his wife reached out to me, insisting I send it to Larry Wilcox. “He needs to see it,” they said. “He’ll love it.”
Well, I thought they were crazy. Why would he have any interested in a silly story by a fan about a character he played over a decade earlier? No, I said, no way. I can’t bother him, I’m just a fan! Phil, his wife and the group insisted and I was given his email address. I reluctantly sent it to him, certain I’d never get a response.
I was wrong. A couple of days later, I sat there staring at his name in my inbox for 20 minutes before getting the nerve up to open it. I was literally shaking. “Wow,” he said, “this made me cry. Thank you for sending it. You have a special talent. Are you getting paid to write? If not, why? And why do you write stories about CHiPs? Thank you again, Miss Steinbeck.”
I was stunned. I cried. And then I wrote him back. I explained what fanfic is, and thanked him. He replied, so did I. And thus began a friendship that continues to this day. It’s how I got my nickname, “Miss Steinbeck” (Larry’s favorite author is John Steinbeck, so that was heady praise indeed!). It’s also how I discovered that we have more in common than I thought. We both grew up in homes touched by alcohol abuse. We both didn’t have fathers around, and we both have a strong relationship with God. Our correspondence continued for about a year before we met. In that time, I got to help him write a story treatment for a TV series he was pitching, and even got mentioned in a few interviews he did!
In the summer of 1997, he started his first website, larrywilcox.com. It was interesting to say the least, attracting quite a variety of people. Unfortunately, not all of them were good people, and I seemed to be the only one willing to let Larry know when a site member had not so good plans for him. Sadly, there were some really unbalanced people on that site, including the webmaster Larry had hired to run the place. That’s another story though, and there were a lot of good times too. Larry used to chat with us regularly, and it was a lot of fun. He was very good-natured, had (and still does) a wicked sense of humor, and seemed to enjoy talking to us as much as we enjoyed talking to him!
Then in October of 1997, he came to New York City to promote CHiPs 99, a reunion movie the cast did for TNT. I was beside myself with nerves and excitement. He and Erik came riding up the street on motorcycles and I was in awe. Then the star struck stupor took over. When he saw me he smiled and gave me a big hug and we talked for a good hour or so. I helped him as he signed autographs and posed for photos with fans (my audition for my future duties I guess!), and I made a total fool of myself.
I was so nervous I kept tripping on my own tongue. I stuttered and stammered and trembled. I may have even shed a few tears. I was 27 but had turned into a star struck child! It was embarrassing but Larry was kind, warm and pretended not to notice, the gentleman that he is. It was a night I’ll never forget. Fortunately, my boyfriend (now husband!) was there to capture some photos for me, photos I cherish to this day. Our friendship began to grow, and we’ve stuck by each other through some pretty tough times over the years. We’d get caught up in our own lives for awhile but then pick up right where we left off, as if no time had passed.
Fast forward once again to 2010. One day Larry asked me to write some press releases for him. I was happy to. Facebook was the place to be, so I asked him if I could create a fan page for him. He said yes. That led to being asked to run his website, then to handle his fan mail, arrange interviews, and set up an online shop so he could sell autographs online. He started writing a regular column for his website and I began editing it for him. Then I created sites for some of his other business ventures. That’s pretty much how I became his assistant, and our friendship continued to grow and evolve.
In early 2011, I decided to take a chance and do something I’d been dreaming about for years. CHiPs’ 35th Anniversary was coming up in 2012, and I wanted to bring the cast together for a reunion to celebrate. It was a thank you of sorts, for all they had been to lonely, troubled kids like me. I approached Larry, and he wasn’t 100% on board at first. He wasn’t sure I had the resources needed to pull it off, but was supportive. Then Robert Pine said he’d be there, and Paul Linke, Brodie Greer…soon all of the cast (except for Erik), several writers and crew, and even executive producer Cy Chermak were all on board. A hotel was reserved, a website put up, tickets sold….
And it happened! It actually happened. On September 15th, 2012, 35 years to the day that the show premiered on NBC, the cast and about 500 fans gathered to celebrate in Los Angeles. Even the CHP showed up! Fans flew in from all over the country and the world. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was amazing. We raised a lot of money for charity and made a lot of memories. To this day I can’t believe I actually did it. The cast members were wonderful. Every one of them was as kind and warm as the characters they played. It’s been 4 years now and fans still tell me what an amazing day it was for them. I’m proud of what I accomplished and everything I learned!
A couple of days after the reunion, Larry and I met up in the hotel bar. We ordered wine and had a long, lovely chat. When we said our goodbyes, some tears were shed. Larry told me he loved me and he’d always be there for me. That I was family. Our relationship had again evolved.
One day on Facebook he said I was an “honorary Wilcox” and called me his surrogate daughter. He’d always been like a dad to me, so for him to say those things…well it was very special. It sounds stupid I’m sure, but to finally, at age 42, find someone who felt I was worthy enough to be thought of like a daughter, was something too amazing for any words I can come up with to describe. An empty place inside me had been filled. I almost felt like that 7-year-old’s wish to be adopted by Jon Baker had actually come true! I owe so much to him. He didn’t have to take a shy, awkward, anxious fan under his wing, but I am very grateful he did. We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years now and I hope we will be for at least another 20! He’s a mentor, friend, father figure and a cherished part of my life.
My life has changed in other ways too. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the country with Larry to assist him at personal appearances. I’ve also had the pleasure of assisting Robert Pine a few times, and I’ve met countless other classic TV celebrities (and I’m no longer star struck thank goodness!). Thanks to Larry I’ve had dinner with Dawn Wells, shared a car with Bill Daily and Barbara Eden, met the cast of Dukes of Hazzard, and spent time with many other celebrities from Roddy Piper to Eric Roberts and so much more. I’ve helped negotiate movie deals, arranged interviews, and more. It’s been an incredible learning experience and I am grateful. It’s given me a confidence I didn’t know I had. I’d always had a hard time speaking in public. I’ve been made fun of for the way I talk (too fast and too soft) since childhood, and picked on for being “the quiet one,” so for me to be able to chat with fans at shows and go up to people at them and introduce myself is huge.
The chances of even one of the things I’ve just told you about happening to someone has to be pretty astronomical. I mean come on! But for some reason they all did happen. I believe a higher power is responsible, I really do.
Larry’s fan page has over 72,000 members now. I also run a Facebook group dedicated to CHiPs with over 3,500 members. I still assist Larry with whatever he needs and do my best to watch out for him, as sadly the internet has made it far too easy for disturbed fans to access celebs. Mostly though it’s a lot of fun. I’ve made many good friends and heard many amazing stories of how CHiPs inspired people to go into law enforcement themselves, or gave them the hope they needed and the promise that yes, there is good in the world and things will get better. I never get tired of hearing fan stories!
I never get tired of helping Larry either. He has an amazing fan base and is one of the hardest working and most resilient people I’ve ever known. He says Jon Baker was 90% him and that’s true, he and the character are alike in many ways, but Larry has other facets to him as well that make him unique. He has a sharp intellect, a wicked sense of humor and a heart of pure gold. He is deeply sensitive and also has a keen business sense. I am proud to call him one of my best friends. The show will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year and I am working on a book to commemorate it.
So you see, a 70’s TV show really did change my life. Amazing, isn’t it?