Things have been positively NUTS lately. They're remodeling the building I work in, so it's dust, noise, etc... all day and we've been creamed with overwhelming amounts of business (which is good, but...!) Also, I seem to have something going on almost every night and weekend (I was gone last weekend to Bardstown, KY, the site of My Old Kentucky Home and the outdoor musical, "The Stephen Foster Story"), so it's been very hard to get a post compiled. Still, I did manage to throw this one together that I hope you like!
Occasionally here in The Underworld, I've mentioned my early boyhood crushes, men such as Lee Majors (a significant one!), Gregory Harrison or Robert Conrad. One I have only scarcely mentioned, but who was quite possibly THE most powerful crush I had as a youth, is Bruce Penhall. Penhall came to be a part of the show CHiPs just as I was turning fifteen and, to me, he was the most beautiful thing ever! Over time, I began to prefer a more tall, brawny person like the divine Clint Walker (who I wasn't even aware of back then), but in 1982, the pretty, perennially-grinning Bruce Penhall was my cup, no, make that pitcher (!) of tea!
Penhall was born May 10th, 1957 in Balboa, California, to LeRoy and Bonnie Penhall, who had two children, Connie and Jerry, before him. Thus he was delivered to this world in close proximity to the beach where he would grow up surfing, swimming, boating and riding his bicycle along the boardwalk of Newport Beach. His shimmering, crystal blue eyes were set off by sun-bleached blonde hair and a California tan.
Eventually as he grew from a boy to a teen, he segued from bicycle riding to motorbike riding and took an interest in speedway racing. He prepared for the sport in his early teens and swiftly began to make a mark for himself. At sixteen, he entered the Speedway arena and soon was one of America's leading riders. The daredevil nature was in his family's blood all along. His brother raced off-road cars while his father raced both powerboats and fighter jets.
In 1975, tragedy struck Penhall when both his parents were killed in a plane crash on the way home from a trip to Mammoth Mountain, California. His brother only escaped death because he'd stayed behind to ski an extra day. Eighteen at the time, Bruce Penhall thereafter made a bold, perhaps necessarily distracting, decision to leave the U.S. and embark on a cycle-oriented tour in Israel. This was followed by another tour in Australia and New Zealand the year after. He channeled his grief and emotion into superior performance on the track.
Once in the States again (and, thankfully free of the long hair he'd adopted!), he continued to ride, but considered leaving when he felt he'd reached the limit of potential success. Fate stepped in, though, when he was suddenly offered a spot on an English team called the Cradley Heath Heathens. After a lukewarm start, he soon rose to be one of the team's top scorers and ultimately became the team captain.
You can fit onto the head of a pin all of my knowledge of the sport of motorcycle speedway racing (I prefer to stare at semi-nude pictures of him. Ha!), but it is done on a packed-dirt oval track and points are scored based on the placement of the riders at the finish line. Over the course of various heats, riders rack up points (3 for 1st place, 2 for 2nd place, etc...) with an eventual winner emerging.
Young Penhall excelled in this sport, becoming the U.S. Champion in 1980 & 1981 and World Champion in 1981, the first American to accomplish such a feat in forty-four years. But that wasn't enough. He proceeded to win the World title again in 1982, becoming the first American ever to win back-to-back individual World Championships. In addition, he won various team honors.
All this success in his field led to a plethora of European endorsement deals including newspaper and magazine ads and television commercials. His clean California looks and boyish smile caused a sensation among scores of female (and presumably a few male!) fans.
That second championship was held in the U.S., partly due to the immense popularity Penhall had achieved in the sport, and when he won for the second time, he immediately retired in order to pursue an acting career and other business pursuits.
Since 1977, the series CHiPs had been entertaining youngsters with the adventures of two California Highway Patrol officers who rode motorcycles versus a police car. Starring Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox, it had become a solid prime-time hit, making a household name of the darkly handsome and macho Estrada. Wilcox, however, eventually became tired of the limelight continually being shone on his costar and began to get restless.
In 1982, he left the series altogether and was replaced by blonde, comparatively inexperienced Tom Reilly, who'd been a college football star. Soon after, Penhall was added to the roster of actors on the show as Reilly's younger brother (Penhall was actually two years older, but retained his boyish face and, at 5'7”, read younger than 6'2” Reilly on screen.) Penhall played a cadet in training.
The teen magazines of the day went positively wild over towheaded, compact, gleamingly-pretty Bruce Penhall.
Shots of him in various stages of dress (and undress) were plastered throughout all the bubble gum rags of the day.
If one were to go simply by publicity coverage alone, he'd made it!
This snap happens to be a favorite of mine, thanks to a pair of diminutive, star-covered shorts.
He found himself in Tinseltown, hobnobbing with other TV stars in his age group such as Sarah Jessica Parker (of Square Pegs), Timothy Patrick Murphy (of Dallas) and Danielle Brisebois (of Archie Bunker's Place.)
Fortunately for everyone he also appeared in this celebrity swimsuit photo spread in a Speedo alongside Shannon Tweed! (Tweed, at the time, was appearing weekly on Falcon Crest.)
Ya gotta love the '80s!
CHiPs had often been punctuated by casting shake-ups and behind-the-scenes stress (Estrada once walked out of the show over syndication residuals and was replaced for a short while by Bruce Jenner), but more was to come. Reilly was pulled over by the Los Angeles police and discovered to be in possession of illegal drugs. This, paired with the fact that Estrada found his work ethic as a series co-lead lacking, led to his role on the show being considerably diminished.
Penhall's part was beefed up. He went through training with lightning speed and suddenly was a highway patrolman just like Estrada and figured more prominently in the episodes' storylines. Footage and backstory of his real-life motocross escapades made their way into the show as well, since his character was a former cycle champ (his first name on the show was even Bruce!)
It was all for naught, however, as CHiPs had apparently run out of gas and was cancelled in 1983. Penhall was now left without a series to rely on while he honed his acting skills. There was talk of him getting his own series, but ultimately it never came to fruition.
He and Reilly had appeared on Betty White's daytime TV game show Just Men! and he'd been booked onto a celebrity Family Feud that celebrated “Perfect 10s” as well as an installment of Circus of the Stars, but there wasn't too much acting coming his way.
He landed a guest role on The Facts of Life in 1984 and an episode of The Love Boat the following year, but things were definitely not clicking. He married in 1985 to a woman named Laurie and they proceeded to have four children together. In 1986, he took a role in an Italian-made horror film called Body Count (a Friday the 13th rip-off) that costarred Mimsy Farmer and Charles Napier and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, noted for films with graphic violence and nudity (sadly not from Bruce!) He rode, surprise (!), a motorcycle in it!
Next came an association with Andy Sidaris, a television sports director who segued into episodic TV and then into low-budget action flicks with an emphasis on “Bullets, Bombs and Babes” (and, let's face it, boobs!) Many of these movies featured Playboy Playmates in leading roles, so we weren't talking Merchant-Ivory here. First up was a small role in 1988's Picasso Trigger.
Savage Beach (1989), which at least had the good sense to show off Penhall's tan torso, came next. He then did about one per year, with titles like Guns (1990), Do or Die (1991), Hard Hunted (1992), Enemy Gold (1993) and Fit to Kill (1993) to follow. Often in these movies, as it was on CHiPs, his character's name was Bruce!
You can still see his beautiful looks even as he was getting older and sliding into obscurity (because I am certain that these movies are quite unknown to the majority of Underworld readers!) Often, his continued skill with a cycle would be utilized in these projects.
And what's with the leather vest over bare chest look? He sports it often in these flicks!
In 1994, he made The Dallas Connection, directed by Andy Sidaris' son Christian. Following a guest appearance on Lorenzo Lamas' TV show Renegade in 1995, Penhall gave up show business and began to look elsewhere for fulfillment and livelihood. He was lured back only one more time (thus far) and that was for a cameo appearance in the reunion movie CHiPs '99 (in 1998, oddly enough!), which reunited the better part of the cast of CHiPs (including the previously departed Wilcox) for a potential updated version (with two new, younger leads) that didn't come pan out in the end.
Penhall next moved on to a new set of thrills, that being the sport of motorboat racing. He and his childhood best friend (whose mother had been killed in the same plane crash that took Penhall's parents) successfully piloted their speedboat in many races, including an APBA World Championship. He came very close to achieving yet another distinction with a back-to-back world championship in power-boating the following year, but it was not to be.
The daredevil blood that ran throughout the Penhall family extended to his son as well. Connor Penhall was a burgeoning motocross cyclist with a bright future ahead of him. He'd also inherited his father's sparkling blue eyes. Sadly, however, in 2012 while he was working construction at night on a California highway, a drunk driver going 60 mph plowed the closure into him, killing him. He was twenty-one.
Though the driver was to stand trial for vehicular manslaughter, Penhall and his wife Laurie also recently filed a lawsuit against the construction company for not having effective enough barricades and precautions for the men at work. It was another ironically tragic incident for Penhall in what would appear from the outside to be a rather charmed life.
It goes without saying that Bruce Penhall was no John Barrymore when it came to his decade-long acting career, but oh was he an inspiration to millions for his exploits in the sporting world and to millions of TV viewers who couldn't get enough of his smiling, beautiful face.
Now fifty-six years of age, there is still a boyish glint in his face, though the loss of his son was a crushing blow to him and the rest of his close-knit family. He learned early on the power of resiliency, though, and will surely continue to find success in whichever arena he chooses.