"CHiPs" Stars Reunite for ABC’s “Battle of the Network Stars”

By Steve Gidlow TV / Video Download Archives

ABC’S hit summer revival of Battle of the Network Stars continues Thursday with TV Cops against the stars of TV Sitcoms.  The special thing about this episode is the re-teaming of original BOTNS veterans and former CHiPs co-stars Larry Wilcox (Jon Baker) and Erik Estrada (Frank "Ponch" Poncherello) who haven’t shared the screen since TNT’s CHiPs '99 reunion movie (telecast in 1998).  For Wilcox, who actually appeared on the first-ever BOTNS in 1976, getting the call to do this update was a surprise.  “I got an email asking if I would do it and if I was handicapped in any way that would prevent me,” Wilcox shared with me during his BOTNS taping at Pepperdine University.  “Initially there was a bunch of paranoid reactions, but I told them I could do everything.

“In fact my son and I had sat down recently to watch a rerun of the original and he said, ‘Dude, even then you sucked,’” laughed Wilcox (pictured top left and below middle).  “I couldn’t even steer the kayak back then.  Still, it’s a little humbling to be back and Erik and I never did [BOTNS] together originally; so this is the first time.  It’s like Jon and Ponch all over again.”

“This feels good after 30 years,” added Estrada (pictured top right and below left).  “I used to be able to do this stuff without loading up on ibuprofen.  Now they’re basically bringing me out to show what I can’t do anymore.  So I’m here, not doing it.”

For both actors, a major consideration in participating was that BOTNS circa 2017 be done in the spirit of the original.  “I was a little worried and told the producers I'd do it, but I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t a comedy and they weren’t going to make fun of us,” laughed Wilcox.  “I would’ve been okay with that but it is being done in the right spirit.”

“For me it was important to come out, be friendly and be involved without [anyone] having attitude,” Estrada told me.  “This one is lighter and easier and maybe a little more difficult because of the ages we are now, but it’s still fun.”

Both Wilcox and Estrada have fond memories the original BOTNS, all of which came flooding back in the familiar surroundings of Pepperdine University.  “Two things stand out for me,” recalled Wilcox.  “Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams) was this burly man you might not have thought was an athlete – but he was a good one.  The second thing was some of the ladies of the various television series. They were all 10-pluses: Farrah Fawcett-Majors and all the Charlie’s Angels gals, Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazard) … they were so beautiful.  I’d find myself staring at these gorgeous women wondering which one I might get lucky with.  Oh, and I did luck out -- but I’m leaving it at that.”

“I remember running a relay race against William Shatner (star at the time of T.J. Hooker),” Estrada recalled.  “He was ahead of me and I managed to pass him, but as I did I let out this huge yell which distracted him.  He laughed, which slowed him down.  There’s a picture of me hauling just before I pass him.  If I hadn’t distracted him he may have beat me.”

Joining the CHiP’s stars on their nostalgic journey is teammate Lorenzo Lamas (formerly of Falcon Crest and now a charter helicopter pilot based in New York) who also has the distinction of having been a team captain on the original.  “I was captain of the CBS team twice,” he told me.  “It’s not something I volunteered for; it was only because nobody else wanted to do it.

“The original was a great way to get to meet people from the other networks,” he continued.  “[Back then] the networks really kind of kept us all under wraps and the industry parties we would attend were all network-based.  I knew the people on Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas because I was on Falcon Crest and we were all CBS people.  [Editor’s note:  All three series were telecast back-to-back-to-back on Friday nights.]  But we never really interacted with folks from other networks unless we did BOTNS.”

Todd Bridges (Diff’rent Strokes) is another BOTNS veteran who is thrilled to be back.  “I said I'd do it instantly,” he said.  “I did the original at 15 and it was so much fun.  I excelled then in track and field -- but you'll have to watch to see if I still do.”

Bridges (pictured above) welcomes a few BOTNS newbies to his TV Sitcoms team, all too young to have originally participated yet thrilled to now be a part of the show’s legacy.  “It first aired the year I was being conceived,” laughs Blossom star Jenna von Oy. “I just turned 40, so what am I thinking?  But life is all about challenging yourself and this is fun.”

“My family was like, ‘You will die!’” chimed in teammate Leigh-Allyn Baker (Will & Grace).  “My strategy was not dying or breaking a leg.  So far, so good.”

“My goal was to not leave today in the ambulance,” laughed Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (Nash Bridges).  “For the last year I have been trying to say ‘yes’ to things that scare me.  I am like a baby giraffe here and scared of looking like a complete fool, so I'm doing it.”

Battle of the Network Stars, TV Cops vs TV Sitcoms will be telecast Thursday, July 27 at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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