(By Darcy Castro, written for the premier issue of The Magazine.)
From craftsman to reality star and brand mogul, this American icon makes an impact that goes far beyond the screen
“Badass biker” would be an easy moniker to slap on Paul Teutul Sr. Millions of viewers have come to know him simply as Senior, the patriarch of the cable series American Chopper. After 21 years in front of the camera, coming into our living rooms with his often brash, get-it-done persona, perhaps we don’t know Paul Sr. as much as we think we do. Peel beyond the tattooed veneer and you’ll find he’s more nuanced than the entertainment press gives him credit for. And with time and wisdom, his years of experience have given him new goals, along with a new perspective. With his longtime partner Joan Bulger-Kay by his side, the Teutul’s and their Orange County Chopper empire are poised to continue the upward climb to success – both in business and in charity – on their own terms.
He doesn’t do Hollywood
Described by those in his inner circle as an affable guy, Paul Sr. is most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, dirty from a hard day’s work. He’s been in business for over 50 years, maintained over 35 years of sobriety and is a self-proclaimed “I don’t do Hollywood” guy who’s a celebrity, but using that status to make a difference in the lives of others. He’s made his mark as a philanthropist, coming up the ranks from steel shop owner, custom bike maker, reality show superstar and entrepreneur. Add community servant to that list, and this well-rounded picture of Paul Sr. is both inspiring and intriguing.
Having his life documented for the entertainment of the masses couldn’t have been easy. As viewers, we’ve had a front-row seat to some of his family’s most intimate and painful moments. From the beginning, Paul Sr. insisted that their reality TV show be authentic, none of the scripted, set-up scenarios that typically find their way into this genre. Even so, viewers are still getting a highly edited version of work, life and play at OCC, but Paul Sr.’s commitment to being honest and true is commendable.
25 years before the idea of making the leap to television was even conceived, Paul Sr. opened his own steel fabrication shop - Orange County Ironworks - in the Newburgh, New York area, a mid-sized town 60 miles upstate from New York City that sits on the banks of the Hudson River. He began building stock motorcycles in the basement, then custom bikes based on his own vision and creativity. The OCC we know today has stayed true to its roots, while becoming a destination for fans at their Newburgh shop, museum and restaurant. Come for the bikes, stay for the burgers, and, maybe if you’re lucky, get a glimpse of the characters from the show that has attracted fans from all demographics.
The entertainment industry did, however, take notice that Paul Sr. had the perfect combination of both persona and craftsmanship. The series struck a winning formula of spotlighting OCC’s custom bike design and manufacture, with a heaping dose of drama and everyday frustrations, in line with reality TV standards. Paul Sr. was an instant success. Fans loved him, and they still do.
After 12 seasons of shows, and the ups and downs of ratings, timeslots and other unsexy, behind-the-curtain drudgery of network TV, American Chopper and their cast of characters has held on to their dedicated following. The hit show is a household brand and is recognized the world over, broadcast in 160 countries. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Paul Sr., or would like to invite the OCC crew over for a BBQ and a beer. The brand is 100% Americana, and was built on Paul Sr.’s talent and commitment to be the same man on air as he is off, as comfortable in front of the camera as he is with a wrench or a blowtorch.
A celeb with purpose
His increased celebrity status and notoriety of the American Chopper brand has given Paul Sr. a platform to expand both his business and his ability to help others. The OCC Foundation formally launched in 2010, and the non-profit has helped to greatly expand their charitable work. Fans have seen the multitudes of bikes built for charity, and witnessed the creation of poignant tribute bikes over the course of the show, like their POW/MIA chopper or the famous “Fire Bike” that was unveiled at an NYC fire station that was the first to respond on 9/11. It may make for great television, but the projects and the charity work stem from Paul Sr.’s big heart.
The OCC crew also creates steel fabrications that don’t run on two wheels, like a new torch for the Special Olympics that’s currently in production, or lending their skill and craftsmanship to help adaptive athletes get their life back through the Oscar Mike Foundation. Paul Sr.’s also a voracious wish granter with Make-A-Wish, giving his time to over 50 kids that want to meet him and get the insider’s experience, and he’s never missed the Make-A-Wish annual fundraising gala. Senior, Joan and the entire OCC crew are using their celebrity to be a positive force in the community, and their commitment to bettering the lives of others through this platform is another reason why fans have been faithful to OCC and Paul Sr. throughout the years.
Bikers may have a reputation for all things leather and inked, but the culture of the biker community has a very large charity and service component. Paul Sr. serves as a reminder that stereotypes are often off the mark.
“The most important thing about celebrity is that you’re in a position to make a difference in people’s lives.” ~ Paul Teutul Sr.
Up close and personal
Paul Sr. shares the inner workings of OCC with Joannie, as he calls her, who is both partner and business partner. He’ll be the first to tell you, with a hearty laugh but with all sincerity, that the good news is that she’s smarter than him. He admits he’s been a controlling personality his whole life, and believes that trait has contributed to his success as a business owner for over 50 years. But now Paul Sr. has embraced stepping back a bit, and making space for others to be a part of the decision-making process. He gives Joanie the credit for not only having his back, but also bringing the business to a whole different level.
The two met at the SPCA of Hudson Valley, where she was president at the time. They now share their home with a large number and variety of animals, including nine dogs, 12 cats, a pig, a horse and “a partridge in a pear tree.” He jests, but the two have seen a lot of abuse and neglect cases in their work with the organization, and that has led to more than one unadoptable animal brought home to enjoy a new life as a Teutul. He’s always been an animal person, and with the space and resources to provide a safe haven to so many animals, the couple are committed to doing what they can to help the SPCA in their hometown, especially since it is a no kill facility and the only source of humane law enforcement in the county. Paul Sr. currently serves as the group’s vice president.
The OCC brand and American Chopper have undergone a rebirth of sorts, and now includes a behind the scenes podcast and expanded digital content on YouTube. The show was a huge, overnight success, and the family dysfunction narrative played into that for many years. After returning to the air, viewers were expecting more of the same, but time had passed, bridges had been rebuilt, and things had changed. Paul Sr. didn't want to recreate that formula, even through it had been successful. The American Chopper personalities today are not necessarily the same as they were in the beginning.
A large part of the new flavor of OCC is their lead fabricator and shop manager Josh Allison. A favorite of the last two seasons, Josh has an impressive background as the creator of a multitude of high-end bikes featured in the most prominent publications in the industry, and has won several awards for his work, cementing his celebrity in the custom bike world. This guy’s lifetime of passion for motorcycles is apparent in the shop and on the screen. We get another perspective from Jason Pohl, lead designer, who continues to wow fans with his uncanny ability to conceptualize jaw-dropping bikes. Part science and part art, Jason’s ideas come to life in the machine shop, inspiring viewers with his own version of fine art.
Reality television is one thing, but an unadulterated, anything goes podcast is another window into the lives of the Teutuls and the OCC crew. This is an opportunity to sit with the personalities you’ve grown to love through American Chopper, and get to know them better. There is life outside of OCC, and there was life before American Chopper, and the podcast peeks into those corners that are left out of the series.
The TV show may boil down 210 hours of film for each 42-minute episode that airs, but the OCC+ Digital Builds episodes are now available on the Orange County Choppers YouTube channel. They are more of a raw, unedited look inside their work and lives. Clips average about five minutes and are a must-see for any American Chopper fan.
There’s also an upcoming two-hour special featuring Senior and Junior on location at his original steel shop. The building is slated to be torn down, but staved off demolition long enough to film the two working on a chopper together – two separate bike builders, two separate companies, reunited on the kind of project that made them famous. It will be the first collaboration since the two dramatically split in 2008, and American Chopper fans will surely appreciate this father-son moment, however imperfect it may be. The show is scheduled to debut later this summer on the Discovery Channel.
Cruising towards the future
Paul Sr. says he’s never the guy who wanted to go to Florida, but nonetheless this New Yorker has begun building a presence in the southern state, forgoing harsh winter weather for warm sunshine. After 21 years as a brand at its flagship location in Newburgh, the future site of OCC’s expansion will include a restaurant, retail storefront and museum across two destinations, one outside Tampa and the other near St. Petersburg.
The museum will truly be a special site to visit for American Chopper followers, meticulously curated with every piece of swag and licensed gear from all the years of the show. Paul Sr. has also stashed away gifts from fans since day one of American Chopper, hoarding them in his home garage, and will give them a new home, and the spotlight, in the Florida museum. He has always wanted to have a publicly accessible space for people to come see this generous collection, an illustration of the impact American Chopper has had on viewers over the years. And of course, there will be bikes, lots of bikes, on display and being built in a new Florida shop.
The original collection will stay at the OCC museum in New York, where their trademark choppers are custom created for individuals, corporations and groups that commission these pieces of machinery that double as art. Still, at heart of it all, the bikes are some of the finest handcrafted, American-made motorcycles. Patrons of OCC and fans of Paul Sr. have a lot to admire, from a talented guy who loves working with his hands to using his celebrity to maximize his positive impact. Yes, he really is a Badass American Biker, with a huge heart.
Darcy Castro is a freelance writer and creator of Cultivating Respect with Darcy Castro. Follow her work at DarcyCastro.com.