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The Untold Truth Of American Chopper

When it premiered in 2003, few could have predicted that "American Chopper" would shape the future of reality TV, but programs like "Cake Boss," "Pawn Stars," and the slew of home-renovation and cooking shows that crowd the dial today all fit the competition-driven, drama-rooted model that didn't exist until Chopper roared onto the dial. Perhaps the hardest thing to believe about "American Chopper" — and a lot of weird stuff has happened on and off screen — is that all the fighting, cursing, crying, welding, and painting was real. Here's the untold truth from behind the scenes of the show.

The Teutuls have battled addiction

In his book "The Ride of a Lifetime," Paul Teutul Sr. discusses his 15-year drug and alcohol addiction, which ended when he went to rehab on the advice of his wife in 1985. "Somehow, she talked me into going into rehab, something I thought I'd never do," Teutul says in the book. "But I wanted to have one last good drunk. So the day before I was set to go into rehab, I got totally plastered. I drank a half-gallon of wine, a pint of brandy, and I took six Valiums." While Paul Sr. was ultimately able to stop his drinking, his sons Mikey and Paul Jr. both had issues with drugs and alcohol in their young lives. Paul Jr. went to rehab at age 16.

Father-son feud

Fights between the Pauls were a regular occurrence on the show, driving much of the onscreen drama. But the most heated argument ever captured on camera happened in 2009, when a chair-throwing Paul Jr. was dressed down by his father for sleeping on the job and showing up late. On one hard, it's exactly the type of nerve-wracking drama the show's network, TLC, wants, but in this case, the row became irreconcilable, with Paul Sr. screaming at the end of the fight, "And don't f***ing bother coming in tomorrow because you're f***ing terminated." Surely the network — as well as viewers at home — thought this, like so many others of their arguments, would blow over. As fans know now, it didn't turn out that way.

The Teutuls were actually Plan B

In an interview with Forbes, "American Chopper" creator Craig Piligian revealed that he'd initially centered the show on another bike shop in New Hampshire, but after a phone conversation, he decided they didn't have "the right mindset," so he changed his plans. Within two days, Piligian and his crew were shooting with the Teutuls, and it wasn't long after that that Piligian had another realization. "What we started to see was that it was a relationship show more than it was a build show. The bike was a by-product of the relationship with the father and the son. It just came out of nowhere and was hugely successful. It was the first family docu-soap," he said.

Piligian even admitted that after a while, he was molding "American Chopper" after "I Love Lucy," meaning he viewed the show as more of a sitcom than reality show in which they would make simple conflicts the center of each episode. "I decided we should make the loglines real simple: Junior goes missing. Mikey doesn't show up. That's what we built the show around. Simple loglines. It was the inspiration for the whole show," he said. So, what was the logline for the infamous chair-throwing meltdown: 'Production company ruins family for ratings'?

Sued for $1 million

After the 2009 fight, Paul Jr. was, in fact, terminated by his father, causing TLC to file a notice of default based on Jr.'s absence from the show. In order to honor their contract with TLC, certain key members of OCC needed to remain employed and on camera. In response, Sr. and Jr. drew up a new contract making Jr. an independent contractor (appeasing TLC). Paul Jr. lasted a matter of months as a contractor, but the new contract gave Sr. the option to buy out Jr.'s stake in the company for a fair market value determined by a neutral party.

And things got uglier from there. Sr. flexed his contractual option to buy Jr. out, which Jr. fought. Paul Sr. then sued his son for $1,000,000 in damages, hoping to bully his son into selling his share. Again, Jr. fought back in court, eventually overturning Sr.'s evaluation of his shares, and keeping his stake in the company. It's really kind of sad, because despite their constant bickering, the show displayed moments of great kindness and reconciliation between the father and son. It would appear, at least for now, that a decent relationship between the two was impossible.

Paul Sr. was sued by another business partner as well

No stranger to the courtroom at this point, Sr. is once again facing legal troubles, this time from a suit filed by a former business partner, Thomas Derbyshire, who claims he got screwed over on the development of a new TV show. According to TMZ, Derbyshire claims he financed a new show, starring Paul Sr. called "Orange County Choppers: American Made," in which he invested $1.8 million for a 51% stake in the company, only for Sr. to turn around and try to renegotiate a 50/50 split just as production was beginning.

According to Law 360, Derbyshire claims that instead of using his invested funds towards production of the show, Paul Sr. "mostly paid expenses connected to his custom-motorcycle shop." Derbyshire also claims Paul Sr. misrepresented the financial well being of the shop, claiming it was "making enough to keep itself afloat," when in reality, "it was actually operating at a loss." Yikes. If those accusations are true, it sounds like Senior's far from his heyday of building gold-plated choppers for Donald Trump.

A tragic accident

Founded in 2010 — after fulfilling his yearlong non-compete with Sr. — Paul Jr. opened up Paul Jr. Designs, based in Rock Tavern, New York. But early on, a tragic incident occurred at the new shop when a 26-year-old man from the nearby town of Beacon fell through the roof and died. The man was not employed by Paul Jr. Designs, but had been contracted to repair the roof by the building's owner. In a statement, Paul Jr. said, "This was a tragic accident and, although I've never met this man, my deepest condolences and prayers go out to his family and friends." Neither Teutul nor his regular shop employees were there when the man fell, but it couldn't have been easy to have such a horrific accident happen only a few months into starting a new business.

Paul Sr. didn't go to Paul Jr.'s wedding

The same year Paul Jr. spun off from OCC, he married Rachael Biester, a model he'd met on an episode of "American Chopper." She can be seen here on the left, in a yellow jumpsuit, posing as a "McCuff Girl." In advance of their August 20, 2010, wedding, the couple appeared on, not surprisingly, TLC's show "Say Yes to the Dress," and even met with a chef from TLC's "Cake Boss" to really hammer home the fact that TLC keeps the Teutuls' lights on. One person, however, did not attend Paul and Rachael's wedding: as their battle in court over Jr.'s stake in OCC raged on, Paul Sr. chose not to go, even though he was invited.

A lawsuit over an allegedly stolen idea

In 2014, a Florida man named Christ Tavantzis sued—among 29 other defendants associated with OCC—Paul Jr. and Sr. for copyright infringement. Tavantzis, who suffered from polio and was wheelchair-bound until his death in February 2016, claimed that at a bike show in 2008 he pitched the idea of a handicap-accessible, three-wheel motorcycle to members of the shop. Tavantzis contends that this bike, which the "American Chopper" team built at the beginning of 2010 in conjunction with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, was a ripoff of his original idea, for which Tavantzis held a patent.

In this clip from the "American Chopper" episode about the bike, Paul Sr. can be heard saying, "Such a unique thing that I think that we did for our company and for the people who are going to appreciate it." As far as the lawsuit goes, unfortunately for Tavantzis, his complaint against Sr. and his 29 co-defendants fell into the category of something called a "shotgun pleading," which basically means it was worded in a way that was confusing, repetitive, and did not clearly separate which defendants supposedly committed which wrongdoing. This resulted in the case being "dismissed without prejudice," meaning Tavantzis would have the opportunity to revise his lawsuit and submit "an Amended Complaint" within 14 days. As of this writing, it is unclear what has happened with the case after that initial dismissal, but if the guys from OCC really did steal a motorcycle idea from a man with polio—then profited from a television episode touting the idea and the benefits it will have for the handicapped—that's definitely dirty business.

Mikey goes rogue

OCC and "American Chopper" have always balanced any tension and screaming with comic relief, coming mostly from Mikey Teutul, the cheery, heavyset shop fixture and youngest Teutul son. If reality stars can be seen as semi-fictionalized characters, the Mikey persona is strikingly similar to the Chumlee character on the History Channel's show "Pawn Stars."

While his father and brother were settling their differences onscreen and in court, Mikey's energies shifted from the shop to other schemes. In November 2010, he opened Wolf Gang Gallery, an art gallery that showcased, among other works, his own paintings. He closed Wolf Gang two years later to focus on his family and health. A year after he opened the gallery, Mikey tried a different venture—this time concentrating on his other love, food: he launched a line of gourmet pasta sauces under the company name FarQueue Products, which carried flavors like Porcine Orgy Sausage Supreme.

Cody sues OCC

Before making its way onto sister channel TLC, "American Chopper" first aired on the Discovery Channel in March 2003. By that point, OCC had already been building bikes for four years. Fans of the show will remember the very young and patient shop hand Cody Connelly, who'd spent two years before the the show's premiere cutting his teeth with OCC. Just before the first episode aired, the team was building what they called "The Cody Project" motorcycle, which was sold for an undisclosed sum at Daytona Bike Week in 2003. Because of his hard work, Cody was gifted a different chopper that he helped design—but in a lawsuit, Connelly claimed he never received the old-school chopper Paul Sr. promised. On top of everything, Connelly—who sought $250,000 in damages—claimed that OCC continued to use his likeness on promotional materials after he'd left the company.

OCC closes its doors?

In recent years, OCC has been dogged by persistent rumors that the company is in dire financial straits and headed for foreclosure. More than five years since the last episode of "American Chopper" aired, it's easy to understand why fans or members of the media might assume the worst when word got out the company's Newburgh, NY headquarters were being sold—but as it turns out, OCC doesn't own the building, they only leased it. As Paul Sr. told listeners on the local radio station WPDH, when the owner of the building went into foreclosure, it wasn't a reflection on OCC's stability—although they are having struggles of their own.

In an interview posted to OCC's YouTube page, Sr. and Mikey admit that the company is not in a great place financially. Sr. describes the position of the legendary bike shop as "in the pits" and "in the bottom of the hole." He cites his own mismanagement of money as well as ballooning overhead costs that came along with the expansion of the business that was a result of the popularity of "American Chopper." But now that the show is over and the big corporate projects aren't rolling in, Sr. says they're taking on any work that they an get just to pay the bills, like "repairing quads, snowmobiles, and cars," as well as "restoring garage finds." He's even gone into his own pocket over the past three years just to make payroll. This is just an idea, but maybe there are obvious ways they could rein in cost—like, say, getting rid of the bowling alley inside the shop. That seems excessive.

Paul Sr. and Mikey tried to crowdsource a new OCC show

During the an interview in which they spell out their financial woes, Paul Sr. and Mikey also announce their intention to start a new OCC-based show, using the crowdsourcing platform, Patreon. Claiming it would give them more creative control, Mikey and Sr. struggle to define their unrestricted vision for the new show other than to say they would be "blowing stuff up" and asking fans for what they'd like to see.

Though the Patreon account has been removed for "not complying with Patreon Community Guidelines," "American Iron" reported on what viewers could get for a direct contribution toward's OCC's new show. For $10/month, they would get exclusive access to shows ahead of the general public. For $25/month, they would get access to a 24 hour livestream of the shop as well as the opportunity to livestream episodes of the show and "take part in a Q&A session afterwards." For $250/month, they would get "a monthly live video chat with Paul, Sr." Their initial goal was $6000, and it's unclear if they ever reached it, although they did start producing shows which can be seen on their YouTube channel. Their most recent upload was about a year ago and it's a one-minute clip of "Cousin Nick" falling out of a ceiling and onto Paul Sr.'s desk, so it's already going pretty great.

Paul Jr. made custom bikes for TMNT: Out of the Shadows

While his dad and the crew at OCC may no longer be getting hit up for flashy builds, Paul Jr. is still snagging some high profile projects. In 2016, he completed two bikes for the summer blockbuster, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: Out of the Shadows." Even more impressive? He did it without concept art. In fact, according to duPont Registry, that's how Jr. does all of his design work — purely from his imagination. "They never do anything without drawings, but they trusted me and my process," Jr. said of working with director Michael Bay and the film's production company. Jr. also said that he was only contracted for one bike, but when he finally delivered it, Bay "liked it so much he asked for a second bike."

The false rumors that Paul Sr. had died

Around the same time as the foreclosure rumors started swirling, strange reports surfaced suggesting Paul Sr. had died in a motorcycle accident. According to Snopes.com, on April 18, 2016, the website Iron Demons doctored a real article about another man's death in a motorcycle crash in Louisiana to make it look like it was Paul Sr.'s death. After that, people started posting on social media and message boards sending their condolences, and the whole hoax spiraled from there. Somebody even made this crude YouTube video about the death. OCC finally responded on Facebook, insisting, "Paul Sr. is alive and well!"

Paul Jr. is deeply religious now

In an interview with the SOS Radio Podcast, Jr. got surprisingly candid about his faith, and how his rededication to living by christian principles led him to a more meaningful relationship with his wife, Rachael Biester. As we've previously mentioned, Jr. and Biester met during the taping of "American Chopper," and though he says that he's always been a Christian, at the time he met Biester, she was not, and that he was "not really doing the right thing" by living with her before marriage. While he was still having doubts about the relationship, he attended a weekend retreat during which he received some sort of clarity from God. Apparently embracing a newfound faith of her own, Biester suggested she move out, during which time they "abstained for nine months" and Jr. proposed. Jr. says they "honored God and each other" during that period and that their relationship has been strengthened by their faith. "There's a blessing in obedience," he says.

And he wasn't just talking the talk. Jr. became actively involved with benefits for PR Ministries, and even did speaking engagements alongside his wife for church congregations. He is available for booking as a "Christian speaker," and has heavily incorporated his faith into his upcoming book, "The Build: Designing My Life of Choppers, Family, and Faith," which the description says is "a rallying cry to unleash God-designed creativity and live life to the fullest." We'd say God is definitely Jr.'s co-pilot, but that would seem like a bit of an understatement.

Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. didn't speak for a decade

Before Logan vs. Kendall feuds dominated internet discourse in the aftermath of yet another excellent episode of "Succession," the most captivating father-son relationship on television was that of Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. on "American Chopper." Fans may recall that the relationship appeared to have reached an impasse when the two got into a dispute that resulted in Paul Sr. firing Paul Jr. and a subsequent lawsuit.

The fight and lawsuit rendered the show's model, in which the two create a luxury motorcycle together, impossible, and eventually led to the show's first iteration being untenable. Fortunately, the producers and studio that made "American Chopper" created a spin-off where the two didn't have to communicate except for a monumental season finale where they ultimately sat for a conversation about their relationship.

Later, the two appeared on "Late Show with David Letterman" to promote their show, and Letterman joked about Paul Sr. still not recognizing the mistakes he made while addressing conflict. The two didn't necessarily reconcile after the new show, and the dispute ultimately resulted in Paul Sr. missing crucial family milestones, like Paul Jr.'s wedding. Paul Jr. even admitted that he hadn't spoken to his father in a decade at one point.

Fatherhood made Paul Jr. re-evaluate his relationship with his dad

Time is said to heal all wounds, which was apparently the case with the Teutul family. Long after the show ended and Paul Jr. started his own company, the father and son duo agreed to work together on a motorcycle for the first time in over a decade. It came after pressure from Paul Jr., who admitted to being more interested in the prospect of the two of them working together again than his father was.

The show's appeal has always gone beyond simply customizing motorcycles: It's more about the challenges associated with building something significant with your family. Paul Jr. appears to have gained that perspective over time, coming about as a result of him having his own son. "When you become a father it makes a difference in the way you see your own father," he told the New York Post. The two had another of their infamous creative differences during the build, but Paul Jr. reminded himself that the motorcycle is secondary to him reconnecting with his dad.

Fans were ultimately upset with the special episode due to the unresolved issues and Paul Sr.'s insistence on not allowing Paul Jr. to fully participate in the reunion. Yahoo! Entertainment went on to describe the reunion as a "big letdown" because Paul Sr. barely allowed his son to collaborate with him.

Paul Sr. has a soft spot for the Christmas episode Santa Bike

It's easy to conclude that Paul Sr. has a narrow emotional bandwidth and minimal sentimentality when you watch "American Chopper." However, in reality, Paul Sr. was always more than just a hothead who emphasized his work over his relationships with those around him. He appeared as a guest on "Motorcycle Knuckle Busters" in 2022, and when asked which episode best described their dynamic, Paul Sr. mentioned the Christmas episode, "Santa Bike."

That was a notable pick given that it was one of the episodes with no big outbursts from anyone on the team. Paul Sr. went on to describe why he enjoys the episode: He treasures his time on the show more for the memories they created than for the bikes themselves. He grinned, remembering pleasantly how the episode lacked the chair tossing for which the show became famous.

Paul Sr. stated that, as time passes, fans approach him and tell him that watching the show as a child was a crucial bonding experience for them and their parents. He is very pleased that there is a good takeaway from the show, and especially that it was the family aspect that kept viewers tuned in.

Paul Sr. once went for a ride with Easy Rider star Peter Fonda

Paul Sr. has been a motorbike enthusiast since the 1960s, when the influential road movie "Easy Rider" came out. He once told CNBC that he's met co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda. "I spent time with him, when I was in Laconia," he said. "I've done a couple rides with him." He's a big fan of the film, but his love for motorbikes actually predates it. He began building bikes in the early '60s, though he didn't enter the motorcycle customization market right away. Instead, he founded an iron fabrication business — Orange County Ironworks — that became a big success.

As his business and his skill with metal fabrication grew, Paul Sr. decided to indulge his passion and move into motorcycle customization. He founded Orange County Choppers in 1999 and was approached a few years after the shop opened about the possibility of doing a Discovery reality show. He accepted the request, but he remained true to himself in front of the cameras, regardless of how that made him appear to audiences. The show was an instant hit, with Paul Sr. even claiming it was the biggest show on cable TV at one point.

The reason the spin-offs didn't last

The relationship between Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. seemed perpetually on the verge of disintegration during the run of "American Chopper." Regardless of how well the show was performing in the ratings, on the fateful day that the relationship between the two stars finally reached breaking point, producers had no choice but to pull the plug. However, even though Paul Jr. ended up launching a competing company and Paul Sr. was attempting to sue him, the creators had a plan to bring the show back. The catch was that, this time, father and son would compete rather than collaborate.

This spin-off show was titled "American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior," and it lasted four seasons. While the show was great for motorcycle enthusiasts, it didn't have the same appeal for regular reality TV viewers, as the drama that drew a lot of people to "American Chopper" wasn't as heightened here. Another spin-off called "Orange County Choppers" followed, but this time Paul Jr. wasn't involved at all, and it only lasted for a single season. The main show was ultimately relaunched with both Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., but they still customized different bikes, unlike the original iteration.

The celebrity bike build that became a celebrity in itself

The patrons who wanted their motorcycles repaired got increasingly notable as "American Chopper" gained popularity. Apparently, motorcycle fans make up a sizable segment of the entertainment industry. There was a time when there was no greater honor for such people than seeing their luxury motorcycle undergo the Orange County Chopper treatment on "American Chopper." Various celebrities, including Bill Murray, Russell Crowe, Billy Joel, and Jay Leno all asked for custom designs.

Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. always worked hard to blend their expertise and the celebrity's taste into their builds. These special celeb motorcycles became so well-known that they took on a life of their own among bike enthusiasts. Wyclef Jean's Spiderman-themed bike became so recognized that it even made red-carpet appearances. This wasn't the only superhero-themed motorcycle that the Teutuls did — they designed a memorable Superman-inspired bike for Shaquille O'Neal in one episode, their biggest build ever at the time.

Paul Sr. didn't know he was the star of a popular meme

By his own admission, Paul Sr. is "not so savvy with social media." When a blazing argument that he and Paul Jr. had about lateness was turned into a widely-used meme, it went right over his head. "I didn't even really kind of care what it was," he told Vice. "Did I know what a meme was? Absolutely not. Now I do." Of course, a man in his 70s not knowing about memes isn't that shocking, but Paul Sr. is not just any man — he is the unlikely source of one of the internet's most lasting memes.

The argument that was so damaging that it destroyed the original version of the show (and, more significantly, a father-son relationship) was immortalized by millennials on the internet and continued to exist as a meme where two opposing viewpoints are laid bare. Sometimes the topics were humorous and other times political. As Vice pointed out, this meme has "been remixed to explain everything from gender pay inequality to the importance of the Padme from 'Star Wars.'"

The American Chopper video games you probably didn't know about

The presence of tie-in merchandise is always a sign of a great showbiz property, and that's exactly what "American Chopper" was in its prime. In 2004, the Teutuls were such a big deal that Muhammad Ali was asking to hang out with them. Their fame was at an all-time high and fans naturally wanted to be linked with them. This led to all manner of merchandise, like clothing, books, colognes, and even two video games.

In December 2004, Activision released "American Chopper" on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. It was described as "a classic example of a game that appears to have little purpose other than cashing in on a hot license" by Gamespot in a scathing review. "The bike control is stiff and unsatisfying, and although you're given a variety of challenges, by the second or third chapter you'll get the sinking feeling that you've seen everything the game's roughly nine hours' worth of content has to offer."

A second game came out in 2006, but, while it was an improvement on the first one in terms of the customization options, the actual gameplay still left a lot to be desired. The motorcycle riding "feels like a clunky version of 'GTA,'" said IGN. "A game like that gets cut some slack since there is just so much aside from driving, but in a situation like this there should be way more strength in the racing portions."

A former Orange County Choppers employee claims he was fired because he's Black

In 2005, a former employee of Paul Sr. filed a lawsuit after he was fired and rehired twice before being fired for a third time. Nigel Murray claimed that he was let go because he's Black, something Paul Sr.'s lawyer, Brandon Ozman, denied. Ozman said that Paul Sr. "categorically denies any allegations of discrimination" and added that the reality TV star "believes this to be a frivolous lawsuit." Murray worked at Paul Sr.'s Orange County Ironworks between 1998 and 2002, when he was fired for refusing to lift a piece of iron that was too heavy for one person to handle, he said. Murray claimed that the supervisor who axed him was looking for an excuse to do so.

Paul Sr. quickly rehired him and paid him for the time he was away, but Murray says he was fired again after taking time off that he was owed. The supervisor who fired him this time "acted abusively" according to the lawsuit (via Record Online), which also stated that Murray's complaints about racial slurs directed at him by the supervisor were not taken seriously by Paul Jr., who was apparently made aware of the situation. After being rehired to work for Orange County Choppers, the issues continued, Murray said. According to the Orange County resident, another supervisor fired him because he didn't like working with Black people.