Motorcycle Champ Bruce Penhall Springs Toward Stardom as Erik Estrada's Sidekick on Chips
05/02/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
The road to Hollywood success is clogged with fast-lane types, but seldom has L.A. run up against a hard charger like Bruce Penhall. At 25, his clean-cut features make him look, as one observer puts it, "like a new, improved Robert Redford." He already is a millionaire who can indulge his latest passion—offshore powerboat racing in a handcrafted $375,000 machine expected to reach 120 mph—or buy a black BMW 635 and have it performance-tuned and reassembled for a mere $65,000. Two years ago he also became the first American in 44 years to win the World Speedway motorcycle racing championship, a title he successfully defended last year. After all that, Penhall may be the only one who doesn't see his role on NBC's cycle cop show CHiPs as anticlimactic. "I felt that I couldn't do much more with motorcycle racing," says Bruce, whose TV contract bars biker competitions. "CHiPs is like a breath of fresh air."
Maybe so, but Penhall's recent elevation from CHiPs cadet to Erik Estrada's riding partner is something of an ill wind for co-star Tom Reilly, 23. After replacing former CHiPs star Larry Wilcox this season, Reilly was busted for alleged drug possession (a single Quaalude) last December. His fortunes further declined due to reported on-set friction between CHiPs honcho Estrada, 34, and Reilly's entourage. Reilly's troubles mean more exposure for Penhall. "Bruce is a team player," says Erik. "You don't find many young actors like that. They're too busy trying to become overnight sensations."
Penhall's prominence certainly was hard-won, though he was born in Newport Beach, Calif. with racing in his blood. His wealthy father, Leroy, owned a large demolition company and "raced everything—motorcycles, Indy-type cars, flat-bottomed boats, prop planes and finally F-86 jets," Penhall recalls. Bruce himself began to race cycles at 12 and turned pro at 16. Then came the family tragedy that marked his life. Returning from a 1975 vacation at Mammoth Lakes ski resort, Penhall's parents were killed when their private plane (the family once owned 10 jets) crashed on takeoff. "No one knows what happened," says Bruce. "I woke up every morning crying, wondering what I would do without them." After he, his brother and sister scattered their parents' ashes over the ocean off Newport Beach, Penhall made a resolution. "I decided," he says, "that I wanted to win the world motorcycle championship as a memorial to them." He lived in Birmingham, England, a hotbed of the sport, for five years to accomplish his goal.
The garage at his $350,000 Manhattan Beach bachelor home is crammed with cycle trophies, but women apparently find the 5'8", 145-pound Penhall just as racy when he's standing still. His girlfriends include actress Kim Richards, 18, once the daughter in ABC's Nanny and the Professor, Terry McQueen, 23 (Steve's daughter), and Little House's Melissa Gilbert, soon 19. "I look at him and say, 'You're so stupid, you could hurt yourself,' " admits Melissa, who is concerned about Bruce's plans to race his speedboat off Miami this month. "But he's very determined, stubborn and strong. If he wants to be the best, he'll be the best."
Even as an actor. Penhall has hired two acting coaches and will take singing and dancing lessons during CHiPs' summer hiatus. "He's devoted his life to it," says Melissa. "Acting's not like racing, which he knows he can win." Penhall isn't plagued by doubts about his prospects. "I'm hard-working and easy to get along with," Bruce grins. "And besides—I'm a terrible loser."