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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

On a crisp fall morning, the stars of "American Chopper" are kicking back in their new offices at Orange

County Choppers' 33,000-square-foot Montgomery, New York, facility. Paul Teutul Sr., 56, known around the shop as "Senior" or "Pop," and his son, Paul Teutul Jr., 30, "Paulie" or "Junior," and two OCC employees sit amid copies of old chopper magazines and cheap plastic motorcycle models. They have recently concluded a meeting with officials from the Air Force, who want a chopper to take around to trade shows for recruiting purposes. Now, three people from a knife manufacturer are visiting, handing out the new Orange County Choppers pocketknife to Paulie and Senior.

The whole scene turns into an episode of the hit reality series. But without the requisite bleeping. The OCC team talks about building a bike for a client, and one of the employees says nobody is around to mock one up. Senior sweeps the room with his arm and stutters, "Get Vinnie to do it—it—it—it takes maybe an hour." He tilts his head back and shakes it. "This one here"—waving his left arm at Paulie, who's reclining on a couch, his arms cradling his head—"This one can do it in an hour." He sprinkles in a few swear words for emphasis.

"Get this," Paulie says. "Usually it takes me a week to do a mock-up. Now I'm great." Senior pauses, then laughs, and everyone joins in. Then Paulie opens the knife and pretends to throw it at Senior. Everyone continues laughing, but the smiles of the three knife company representatives turn nervous. You're not supposed to goof around like that with knives.

So far as television's reality programming goes, the Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" is unique. No one is kicked off an island, competes for a nose job or to marry a multimillionaire, chows down on squirmy worms, dresses like a woman although he's a heterosexual man, or gets fooled into believing he's a contestant on, what else, a reality program. Each episode of "American Chopper" consists of a handful of quiet, super-patient, working-class guys from Orange County Choppers inside a garage custom-building a motorcycle for a client. But no series since "American Chopper's" premiere in 2002 has had such an effect on cable reality television.

"[The Discovery Channel] has figured out how to make a show like this entertaining for someone who doesn't even know how to change their own oil," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's immediately compelling. It's done more for motorcycles than Easy Rider." And it has made Monday night must-watch TV. "Two major things happened during the [2004] Super Bowl: the Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction,' and [Orange County Choppers'] AOL Super Bowl commercials," Thompson continues. "A lot of people hadn't discovered them yet. People talked about who they were, and that was probably their real emergence."

Did I say quiet, patient guys? Senior and Paulie seem anything but. The bikes that they build are works of art and are one reason why people watch the show. But let's face it. PBS has bored vicarious motor heads silly with how-to programs in which a couple of monotoned guys rebuild a junk car on television. So the creators of "American Chopper" decided to do something different: they had the Teutuls go after each other like rabid dogs. Well, Senior goes after Paulie like a rabid dog. Paulie kind of eggs him on.

"He's just an instigator," says the barrel-chested, tattooed Senior. "It's a front to make me look like the bad guy. He knows where the buttons are." And that's what's changed the face of reality television. No more scheming behind the other contestants' backs. The screaming, the emotion—it's all out in the open and it's all entertaining. The next time you see two people snarling at each other on reality TV, thank "American Chopper."

Paulie is Senior's eldest son, the one who's in charge of design and fabrication at Orange County Choppers. The second oldest, Dan, 29, runs Senior's first business, Orange County Iron Works, in Rock Tavern, New York. The third son, Mikey, 26, wanders around the shop with no apparent function except growing his hair and popping bubble wrap and maybe sometimes emptying the garbage. Senior's youngest, daughter Kristin, 22, is a nursing student in Rochester, New York. They've all been on the show.

Los Angeles—based Pilgrim Films shoots the show and uses a crew of six: three on the cameras, one sound person, a production assistant and an associate producer. The OCC crew builds one bike over two hourlong episodes, and Pilgrim shoots about 100 hours of footage that get edited down to the two episodes. The shooting season lasts 56 weeks, and from it 28 episodes come together.

"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.

"Choppers are brutal," says David Seidman, executive features editor of Boating magazine and a veteran biker. "They're very uncomfortable, but they look cool as hell."

Senior grew up in Yonkers and Rockland County, New York. Admittedly a poor student, he graduated from high school and went into business for himself, assembling metal construction frames. He built the successful Orange County Iron Works from the business end of his pickup. And he rebuilt bikes. One of his first was a Harley-Davidson in 1974.

Senior married and had four children. As the Iron Works grew, so did his hobby—and his addiction. He doesn't like to talk about it, but he admits that he didn't spend too much time raising the kids, and about seven years ago, the marriage disintegrated. Trying to reconnect with his children, Senior started working with Paulie on a bike in Senior's garage in 1999. Like younger brother Dan, Paulie worked at Senior's company, and he knew his way around the metal shop. But what also became apparent in the garage was that Paulie had a gift for building choppers from scratch. And for pushing Pop's buttons.

Senior saw another successful business in the making. In 1999, he formed OCC, appointing Paulie chief fabricator and designer and bringing in mechanic Vincent DiMartino to help out. He put the whole works in the lower shop of the Orange County Iron Works building.

All the bikes OCC builds do run—generally, Senior or Paulie rides the completed cycle at the end of the two-arc episode—and OCC guarantees their work for six months. "Things break due to vibration; gas tanks will start leaking," says Michael Burkhouse, OCC's only full-time salesperson, who also handles any warranty problems "and crazy fans."

"I always tell people it's like buying a race car: you drive it two hundred miles, something breaks," he adds. "Definitely when someone spends 60 grand, don't tell them, 'Sorry, take a walk.'"

But the bikes really aren't for riding; they're typically for promotion. Most don't even have odometers. OCC can build an entire chopper in a week as long as it's assembled from parts it has in stock. Those bikes start at about $40,000. Building a unique frame, gas tank, etc., adds a lot more time and money. The costliest ran above $1 million. As part of that deal, however, the Teutuls had to make public appearances.

So why does Senior get so angry at Junior? Paulie is an artist, after all. No doubt about it. It's amazing to watch him conceive an idea, sketch something out on a piece of metal with a Sharpie, and punch it out on some machine or cut it with a torch or grinder and tack it into place. And then you think, what does Senior do except blow up at Paulie the artist? He'll fly into a rage because the shop is messy or because Paulie is running behind schedule. The apple, however, didn't fall so far from the tree; it just rolled a ways after it hit the ground. Senior's gifted, too. On a few episodes, he's fabricated a couple of bikes, and they've turned out as beautiful as any of Paulie's. And when he's mocking them up or assembling the parts, he never loses it, never explodes. He's as patient as Junior.

According to an article in a magazine whose name no one around the shop can quite seem to remember or find, Orange County Choppers is the third-fastest-growing company in the United States. Four years ago, OCC had three employees; today, there are 50. The company has opened a museum-slash-gift shop (there's now a director of retail operations) in an otherwise typical strip mall in downtown Montgomery, and someone besides Mikey answers the telephones in the shop. Orange County Choppers has signed up nearly 70 licensing companies that produce everything from OCC T-shirts to OCC belts to those OCC pocketknives and even OCC cologne. Most carry the logo that Paulie designed, the letters "OCC" in the shape of a chopper.

Overexposed? Try those AOL commercials with Paul, Paulie and Mikey. Try the Travel Channel's "Poker Challenge: American Chopper vs. Trading Spaces." How long will the fun last? It's anyone's guess, but Professor Robert Thompson's the expert. "It's not wearing out as quickly as I would have predicted," he says. "Ten years? Probably not. Reruns? Probably so."

And if the show's not on in ten years, he adds, the Teutuls may be doing something else on television. "They're not going to star and costar in another "CSI" series," he explains. "They would probably do worse in a sitcom than Emeril [Lagasse] did. Not a lot of people who do what they do and look like what they do could be repackaged in another venue." Having said that, Thompson adds that they might get their own show on Comedy Central, say, just sitting in a diner and eating lunch. That might work—so long as Paulie keeps pushing Senior's buttons.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer and author living in New York City.

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