No offense to the current crop of motorcycle cops cruising the City of Angels, but the California Highway Patrol has never looked better than when Erik Estrada was riding high as Officer Francis Llewellyn "Ponch" Poncherello alongside Larry Wilcox's Jon Baker on CHiPs (1977-83). For six years, the blow-dried and beloved sex symbol broke racial barriers and battled NBC, while forever cementing his status as an icon on wheels. So in honor of the show's Tuesday debut on DVD, we rang up Estrada to get the dish on CHiPs — including Ponch's nationality switch, and the money dispute that almost got him "Olympically" canned.
TVGuide.com: Let's talk about the first season of CHiPs, which just came out on DVD. It's about damn time!
Erik Estrada: I know. Through the years people would come up to me and say, "When is it coming out? Is it out already?" And so now it's out, 22 episodes and it should be really cool.
TVGuide.com: And thank god that unlike some actors, you were willing to do commentary for the extras.
Estrada: Yeah. I'm on it throughout the whole thing and there's a major interview with me. Matthew Asner — he's Ed Asner's son — directed it, and there are some fabulous things in there. We go into my whole life, why I became an actor and not a cop first. I wanted to be a New York City cop before I became an actor.
TVGuide.com: Had you seen any of these episodes since they'd run back in '77?
Estrada: Some of them, yeah. Not since the ‘80s, but I would catch a rerun now and then. [Laughs] Some of the stuff in there, I go, "Oh, my god, I did that? Who is that guy?' [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: And comparing it to crime shows now....
Estrada: Well, it was a whole different time in America. Remember, there were only three networks, AIDS hadn't gotten onto the streets and they hadn't turned cocaine into crack yet. Everything was cool. There was still disco and very little rap, that hard-core gangster rap. There wasn't even HBO.
TVGuide.com: And you were one of TV's first Latino sex symbols, right?
Estrada: Playing a positive role on a network television show, it was great. I took it as a responsibility. Poncherello was supposed to be Poncherelli, and then when I got this part I said, "You know what, this guy isn't going to be Italian-American, he's gonna be Hispanic American." And they went with it.
TVGuide.com: Not only that, but they also presented Ponch's background and family in a positive light, which was probably something new.
Estrada: It was, I think. Other than Ricky Ricardo and maybe Ricardo Montalban in features, before that you didn't have Hispanic Americans on prime-time network TV shows playing police officers.
TVGuide.com: They were usually shown on the other side of the law.
Estrada: And I did nine years of that. [Laughs] Just pull up my spots on Kojak, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0....
TVGuide.com: What kind of training did you and Larry have to undergo for the show? Did you need motorcycle licenses?
Estrada: Well, he had one. I didn't and had to get all of that. I never rode a motorcycle before CHiPs.
TVGuide.com: And those are pretty big bikes.
Estrada: I know, man. Strong, big powerful motors.
TVGuide.com: Do you still ride?
Estrada: Oh, yeah. Every chance I get. I carry a license and I ride with the Choir Boys. I'm gonna ride with them this October.
TVGuide.com: The Choir Boys?
Estrada: Yeah, [it's a motorcycle club] for Arizona police officers. This is a group I met through these child-safety-seat events I've been doing over the past few years. People come out with their cars and we take out their old seats and put brand-new ones in for free. I met them through that, because we use them as technicians. Since it's a giveaway, for liability purposes, you need trained technicians to put them in [properly].
TVGuide.com: People must get the biggest thrill seeing Ponch pull up next to them on a bike in traffic.
Estrada: [Laughs] Yeah, I know. But they kind of distract me a lot. Everybody's got a camera phone.
TVGuide.com: As I recall, your contract disputes during the run of CHiPs were another first, because behind-the-scenes skirmishes had never been made public before.
Estrada: Well, I had owned 50 percent of the show's net profits, then had a big dispute with [the producers] over it. So I walked off, they hired Bruce Jenner, and then they came back and settled with me. The ratings [dipped], you know? And they had to deliver six years of me as Poncherello to complete their sales for syndication.
TVGuide.com: So it sounds like it was more beneficial for them to settle anyway.
Estrada: I know, but they don't want to pay you. They don't want to give you anything more than they have to. And they find bookkeeping ways of nailing you. I wasn't having that. I didn't want to end up like James Garner: It took him 11 years to fight Universal over [syndication profits] for The Rockford Files. I put 15 years of my career on the line and walked off.
TVGuide.com: Did this sour you on working for networks?
Estrada: After a while, I realized it was just business with them. If they can burn you, they'll burn you — if you let them. A lot of people don't fight for what they're owed.
TVGuide.com: And at that time, I'm sure a lot of actors were in the same boat without even knowing it.
Estrada: You know, Fess Parker never saw anything from Daniel Boone. I said to Robert Blake one time, "Hey, I just acquired another seven-and-a-half percent of CHiPs' net profit, so I have a total of 35," and he said, "A--hole, you got 10 cents? I got 33-and-a-third percent of Baretta. I'll sell it to you for 10 cents." That said a lot to me right there, and I decided that I was going to fight them. I'll find out when they make the syndication deal, then I'll attack. And I did. Then they blacklisted me for 10 years! [Laughs] But I came back with the biggest, longest-running, highest-rated Spanish soap opera in Latin television [Dos Mujeres, Un Camino].
TVGuide.com: How was that? The work schedule on telenovelas is crazy.
Estrada: It was nuts, because I didn't know how to read or speak proper Spanish. So I went to Berlitz and learned.
TVGuide.com: Now you can work in both worlds.
Estrada: I know.
TVGuide.com: You've been busy recently with reality TV. How did you like doing the first round of The Surreal Life?
Estrada: I didn't want to do it, but my wife talked me into it. She said, "No, you need to do this... because nobody knows you. They know Ponch — tight pants, white smile — but nobody knows you the way I know you." And I told her that she didn't want me in a house full of weirdos, ‘cause if someone gets stupid with me, I'd have to thump them. And she said, "You be the man I married, the husband that you are, the son you are to your mother, the brother you are to your sister and the father you are to your children. That's who you're going to be." And I was. [Laughs] Because then she said, "Or you don't come home."
TVGuide.com: But you did have fun doing it, right?
Estrada: It was fun some of the time. But mostly, you can't go in there and try to relax. You have to stay on your guard because if you do something stupid, you're going to see it 500 times in reruns.
TVGuide.com: Speaking of reruns, when you watch CHiPs again, are there any episodes that stand out as your favorites?
Estrada: I think I liked the one where I sang "Celebration." I had to learn how to do all that in, like, two days. It was intense. Originally Larry was supposed to sing some country-western song, then he just bailed on them and they said, "OK, we'll have Ponch do it." It was a challenge, I remember. I would have to go and practice at night after a full day of filming.
TVGuide.com: Oh, man....
Estrada: It was always like that. I'd film all week, then at night would go to the studio to [work] on a dance scene that was coming up or a roller-disco sequence or something that was going to feature Ponch. Then in between, I'd be doing Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Hollywood Squares. I was super-busy.
TVGuide.com: Did you get any private time? Or was this something you totally enjoyed?
Estrada: Yes and no. I didn't not enjoy it. I had some really, really good times. But it was a grind. It would be like doing Dancing with the Stars now.
TVGuide.com: Would you consider being on Dancing?
Estrada: No. I don't wanna have that kind of fun. It's a grind, man! And I'm not a spring chicken anymore. I could do it.... But I don't want to.
TVGuide.com: What do you watch?
Estrada: National Geographic has awesome stuff. I like Court TV. Sometimes I'll watch Reality Mix because they have some interesting stuff on that. And then I'll watch Bill Maher, Entourage, The Sopranos, The Shield....
TVGuide.com: That's like the anti-CHiPs.
Estrada: Yeah, and he's the anti-Christ cop! [Laughs] But I really like it. Basically I'm on cable a lot.
TVGuide.com: One last thing: What do you think of the proposed movie version of CHiPs with Wilmer Valderrama as Ponch?
Estrada: I think it'd be cool. They just have to come up with a good script that gets approved by the California Highway Patrol. They have the final say if they're going to lend their [name and image] to the movie.
TVGuide.com: Any talk of you or Larry making cameos?
Estrada: Not to my knowledge. I wouldn't mind having one 90-second scene where I chew him out for not sticking to the job, for chasing the babes. That way, you take a lot of heat off of Wilmer so he doesn't have to stress out with trying to beat the original Ponch. You'd have Ponch Sr. handing the torch over to Ponch Jr. [Laughs] It's a brilliant idea!
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