Caitlyn Jenner Played a Motorcycle Cop on ‘CHiPs’ After Erik Estrada Angered NBC

In 1977, the series CHIPs debuted, and it quickly became one of the more popular TV shows of the day.

The name comes from the shorthand for California State Highway Patrol, and it showed the adventures of motorcycle-riding officers. The two stars of the show, Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox were widely considered to be heartthrobs, in their short-sleeved uniforms and sunglasses. But even though their fans adored them, behind the scenes there was ongoing tension between the stars.

And for a little while, those problems led to an unexpected guest star replacing Estrada.

The popularity of ‘CHIPs’

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Estrada played the part of Frank Poncherello, the wise-cracking cop known as Ponch. Wilcox played his straight-laced partner, Jon Baker. According to MeTV, the two rode their motorcycles onto TV screens and into viewers’ hearts. The sexy, yet wholesome duo were a huge hit, spawning a merchandise line of action figures, lunch boxes, and trading cards.

Unlike many of today’s police dramas, the crime-fighting partners upheld the law without ever drawing their guns. In fact, only one officer was shown with a weapon during the entire series. During its six seasons on the air, CHIPs was popular around the world. Its instrumental theme song even became a hit disco single in Japan. 

But despite the fact that so many people loved the show, its two stars weren’t very fond of each other. They may have been an unstoppable pair onscreen, but behind the scenes, things weren’t so friendly. 

Conflict between the stars

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According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Estrada became the biggest star on the show, and his popularity seemed to go to his head. He started making demands on the set and became hard to work with. He and Wilcox started arguing, which eventually spilled over into the press. They complained about each other and called each other names. 

Today, the pair seems to have worked through their issues and become friends. They blame their earlier problems on their age and immaturity. 

“We were different people as young men,” Wilcox said. “Agents, publicists and the like contributed to the enmity.” 

“We were both going through divorces, too,” Estrada said. “That didn’t help.”

But back in 1981, their conflict and Estrada’s arrogance led to problems with the network executives. Believing that he deserved more money, Estrada refused to come back for the fifth season. Instead of giving in to his demands, executives brought in another star to fill his shoes. 

Caitlyn Jenner stepped in

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner | Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

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When Estrada decided not to return if he wasn’t paid more, the show’s producers decided to take the opportunity to prove that the show could get by without him. To show him the series would go on, they brought in Caitlyn Jenner (then known as Bruce) as a guest star to fill the space Estrada left behind.

According to Mental Floss, Jenner was working for NBC Sports as a commentator and already knew how to ride a motorcycle. 

After only a few episodes with Jenner, Estrada realized that his demands weren’t likely to be met. He came to an agreement with the network, and he returned to his role as Poncho. Jenner’s character was slowly phased out of the series, and after seven episodes she was gone. 

Today, Estrada and Wilcox seem to have put their conflict behind them. But for a little while, their animosity toward each other opened the door for an unlikely actor to try her hand at the world of the highway patrol.