Remember the late '70s, early '80s California highway patrol series CHiPs? Spent the day hanging out with TV's "Ponch," a.k.a. Erik Estrada. The actor was flown up to Toronto to guest on the new series Switch, premiering next spring on TVTropolis.
Yours truly was invited to be one of three "TV experts" joining Estrada in an informal, round table-like discussion of all things cop show; we were sort of like "Ponch's posse." The other two tube watchers today were Tim Steeves, stand up comedian and writer on the Rick Mercer Report, and Nathan Rabin of the Onion's AV Club.
Other topics coming up on Switch's breezy hit list are best TV cars, best spy shows and most memorable TV MDs. Tomorrow I'm back on the set, this time with Jimmy "Dy-No-Mite" Walker from Good Times, who is up here to take a bow as one of TV's "Best Second Bananas." Good times.
Estrada is happy to tell you that he turns 60 next March and why not? He's in great shape and does not look anywhere near his age. Compliment him on his youthful appearance and he will immediately crack himself up by straightening out his hairpiece. It is one William Shatner-worthy rug. [CORRECTION: It is not a hairpiece. Steeves straightened me out at the Tuesday taping. Estrada does that old gag where he pretends to shift his hair around by yanking at the sides of his head. Wot a cut up!]
Gregarious and good natured, he comes crammed with great Hollywood stories; some even made it to air. The one that took all day to tell (and didn't make it to the show) was a beaut. Seems young Estrada's first big TV break came in 1973, when he got a call from his agent asking if he wanted to fly to Hawaii to guest on Hawaii 5-0. This sounded better than waiting tables in Harlem, so Estrada, then 23 or so, said Hell, yes, book me, Danno, and beat it to the Pacific for a week.
He gets there, is playing a punk, and starts waving a prop gun around shooting exterior scenes. The cast and crew are outside, under the Hawaiian sun, and all of a sudden a giant truck pulls up along side the beach where they are shooting. Estrada is fairly new to the business and can't figure this out. What's with this crazy giant panel truck, jockeying back and forth with every gust of wind? Then it hits him--the truck is there to block the wind from messing Hawaii 5-0 star Jack Lord's magnificent Tsunami-like wave of piled high hair.
Estrada is mesmerized. He's never seen anything like it. He says to himself, This is star power! From that moment, he was hooked on the business.
Estrada has some hair curling stories of his own about about standing up for his percentage of CHiPs. He claims he was blacklisted for years after staring down the producers of the series over royalties and residuals. During the series run, he walked off the set and missed several episodes in a salary dispute. He was briefly replaced by former Olympian Bruce Jenner!
He doesn't have much to say about his former motorcycle cop co-star, Larry Wilcox, other than to point out that the original idea was that Estrada was to play Tonto to Wilcox's Loan Ranger. When the show took off on NBC, mainly after it was moved to the family friendly Sunday night at 8 hour, it was Estrada's face all over those Teen Magazine covers. "You can plan all you want, but the fans ultimately decide," says Estrada.
In the '90s Estrada, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, made a fortune working a Spanish language soap opera in Mexico. In more recent years, he has emerged as one of the more likable star players in reality television, taking a good natured ribbing or two over his Ponch past on shows like The Surreal Life and CBS's short-lived Armed & Famous. That was the show where he and Jack Osbourne, Trish Stratus, La Toya Jackson and others had to pass actual police physicals and training regimes to see if they could do the jobs they once played at on TV.
This worked for Estrada, who says he only ever had two dreams in life: to be a cop and to be an actor. That he got to be an actor playing a cop on TV was pretty cool, he says.
It could get even cooler: Estrada kept up his police training, especially in the drug enforcement area. Besides lecturing in schools, he now acts as a reserve police officer in Muncie Indiana, his next stop after this Toronto gig.
He's pitching a reality series to TLC based on his new patrol endeavors. If that takes off, he'll be an actor playing a police officer-turned police officer-turned actor.
The dude keeps working. He just shot the two-part finale to According to Jim where he plays a motorcycle riding Devil; Jim Belushi's Blues Brother pal Dan Aykroyd also guests. Next up is an appearance on My Name is Earl.
He's also still cashing in on his CHiPs experience. When a cop pulled him over for doing 104 miles per hour on a coastal thoroughfare near Malibu, the actor dutifully pulled out his license and identification. The young patrolman did a double take, asked him if he knew how fast he was going, told him a fine car like that deserved to be driven with more care and started walking away. "Aren't you going to give me a ticket?" asked Estrada. "No sir," said the cop. "You're the reason I became a police officer."