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Born to be Wild

The success of "American Chopper" rests not only on the beauty of the bikes the stars create but on their combative relationship as well.
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

"We don't have to do much," says on-set producer Steve Nigg. "We just let the animals run around in the yard, and we get a lot of good stuff out of it."

Despite what anyone thinks, "American Chopper" is not staged. Not much of it, anyway. "Once in a while, the entry is staged; otherwise they wander in from all over the place," Nigg says. "I'd rather not talk about that if at all possible." Sometimes the crew will tag along and get footage of the Teutuls duck hunting, flying a hot-air balloon, setting fire to a wasp's nest or to some garbage in front of Senior's new house, or destroying Mikey's old car—but no one at Pilgrim schedules the hot-air balloon ride or suggests torching wasps or wooden pallets. "[The Teutuls] put a lot of hours in," Nigg explains, "so once the bike's mocked up and out for painting or chroming, they want to do something to kill time, and a fan will approach them and say, 'Do you want to do this?' Once in a while [the crew will] have one of the guys come off to the side and describe what just happened, be it a different design approach, trouble mounting a motor, or Senior blowing a gasket. They call that a 'stand-up.' That's the only narration.

"The hardest part is getting Paulie to work," says Nigg. "He's just a lackadaisical guy. He says he's not an artist, but he's the right-brained artistic type. He wanders off a lot. He wanders off and has a cigarette or gets a bug to work on a fishing pole. Mikey, he disappears for different reasons. He'll go off to watch cartoons. Paulie, there's a whole spectrum of things he does. The ADD kicks in and he wanders off."

Senior sports dark gray hair, which is neatly combed back, as is his grayer walrus mustache, which travels down to his throat, unique even for a walrus mustache. He benches 405 pounds and has two tattoos on each of his massive arms, the most notable of which are the Harley-Davidson logo, "Teutul" in calligraphy script, and another logo that says "Orange County Choppers New York." His left ear is pierced. For someone who's spent his life working with metal, he's incredibly neat and clean. Even his hands are as soft and smooth as a baby's bottom. He smiles when you bring that up.

"Absolutely," he says. "I, uh, to be honest with ya, I spend more time on the business side of things. You know what I hate? When you get metal splinters. Those things don't come out." Senior's guarded. He usually gives clipped, short replies and has a couple of verbal tics, like answering questions with "Absolutely," beginning sentences with "To be honest with ya," and interrupting an explanation with "You know what I'm saying?" He also stutters whenever he's frustrated and beginning to heat up. "But Senior also wears his heart on his sleeve," Nigg explains. "He'll start crying in the right situation."

The road to "American Chopper's" success was paved by another show on the Discovery Channel. In 2002, the network had achieved phenomenal ratings with a series that chronicled the work of Jesse James, a colorful character famous not for his gunslinging, but for his custom-motorcycle business, West Coast Choppers. That year, his "Monster Garage" show pulled in 1.5 million viewers per episode, strong numbers for cable television, and the network, known for its animal documentaries and home-decorating-tip programming, was ravenous for more of the same higher-rated formula. Think NBC's "Law & Order," from which the network spawned "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Trial by Jury." Instead of West Coast chopper building, the proposed new program would be about chopper building from the East Coast.

Craig Piligian, executive producer for Pilgrim Films, was asked by the Discovery Channel to find a manufacturer. After researching East Coast motorcycle builders, Piligian and Discovery producer Sean Gallagher approached Orange County Choppers with their concept: Senior and Paulie would travel to a motorcycle junkyard, pick out a piece of two-wheeled garbage, take it back to their shop and shine it up into a gleaming speed monster. Senior said no; his business was building choppers from scratch. Piligian went to another builder in New Hampshire and, just before shooting began, discovered the guy had never actually built a bike. So he revised his plan to conform to Senior's parameters and re-proposed it to Discovery. Discovery approved, albeit reluctantly.

The pilot consisted of Paulie fabricating what he calls the Jet Bike, modeled after the F-117 stealth fighter, in the lower shop of Orange County Iron Works. Senior showed up in it, too, blowing his stack when Paulie pushed his buttons as a narrator described the process. That's it. When the pilot aired in September 2002, it smashed cable ratings for its time period. Soon after, a second episode, "Biketober," aired, and again it tore up the competition. Discovery ordered 27 additional episodes. Senior wasn't happy about how he came off—he thought he looked like a fool—but business just rolled in faster than the Jet Bike, and that made him happy. Today, "American Chopper" has shot past the Jesse James show with two million viewers an episode to become one of Discovery's top-rated series, and it's the number two cable reality series in the country.

America has had a love affair with the chopper ever since its creation. Like the baby boom, choppers were born just after the Second World War. Returning veterans replaced the war with the thrill of riding motorcycles. But American bikes—the Hogs, the Indians—seemed too heavy and clumsy compared with the motorcycles they'd seen and ridden in Europe. So they started stripping these American bikes of their fenders, or shortened ("bobbed") them. And from the bobbed fenders they took their name: Bobbers. As years passed, the bikers continued chopping off (hence the eventual name) any unnecessary weight: windshields, heavy headlights, wide seats, saddlebags and sidecars. They stretched the front forks to elongate the wheelbase, made the front wheel skinny and the rear wheel fat, and shrunk the gas tank. They switched the seat from saddle to banana.

The archetype chopper (Miss America) and the attitude (Peter Fonda's and Dennis Hopper's) blended and emerged in the 1969 movie Easy Rider. But are choppers easy to ride? Depends on whom you ask. Having your arms up on the ape-hanger handlebars with your legs stretched out on the pegs forces you to sit upright, which is a good thing. After a few hours on a normal cruiser, you get tired and slump forward, which hurts your arms and makes you walk funny when you finally get off. What really hurts on any bike is a narrow seat, like Miss America's. "A chopper can be very comfortable to some, but other riders may disagree," says Jeff Zielinski, general manager of Liberty Motorcycle in Wilmington, Delaware.

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