Question: I've been catching CHiPs reruns on TBS and was wondering if Erik Estrada, who played Ponch, was as much of a pain in the butt as I heard when that show was on. Was he? — Kim B., Lihue, Hawaii
Anyway, "pain in the butt" is a relative term, but the heartthrob (whose voice can currently be heard on The Cartoon Network's hilarious Sealab 2021) certainly took a hot temper along for the ride while straddling a California Highway Patrol cycle from September 1977 to July 1983 on the hit NBC show. Brought up poor in New York's tough East Harlem, the actor learned early to settle matters with his fists rather than his mouth and, as many a pro who's worked with a touchy star will tell you, sudden stardom doesn't tend to make someone nicer. Throw in a bad 1979 on-set cycle accident, questionable business deals, a painkiller habit and a nasty divorce and you had the perfect recipe for a guy with, well... a CHiP on his shoulder.
"For me, the past three years have been like 10 for a normal person," Estrada told TV Guide in 1982. "I got crazy, I got very crazy after my accident. I mean, so crazy they put me on Thorazine.... We were doing this scene on CHiPs and I was thrown from my motorcycle. The motorcycle smashed me into a car and then fell on my back. I was dead for about three seconds. The doctors told my partner I probably wouldn't make it. I was lying in that alley, all busted up. The star of a big series. Lots of money. Love. And nothing in the world could get me to stand up. Something snapped."
Apparently so. After seven months of marriage, his wife accused him of, among other things, forcing her to participate in drug abuse, black-magic rites and life-threatening acts (all of which, understandably, Estrada emphatically denied). He acted out physically only once, according to reports from the time — smashing up glasses and dishes at a party after a woman rejected his advances — but he certainly caused his share of turmoil at work. "He has a short fuse," said CHiPs director John Florea, who attributed some of the tension to the fact that Estrada became a star before learning much about acting. "If there were things he felt he didn't know how to do, something he couldn't achieve, he would blow up. Then he would storm off the set."
In fact, the only one Florea accused of ever getting physical on the set was co-star Larry Wilcox, who left the show and the role of Ponch partner Jon Baker in 1982 after several years of widely acknowledged tension with Estrada. "Larry had given us trouble before by disappearing in the middle of the day and I figured it was about time someone stood up to him," Florea recalled. "I demanded to know where he had been. He started screaming. And poking me in the chest. He pushed me all the way across the room with his fingers, until two or three cops rushed up to stop him."
Sort of shatters your illusions about how much fun it is to work in showbiz, eh? It certainly did for Florea, who chalked all the acrimony up to good, old-fashioned ego. As the story goes, Estrada received about 3,000 fan letters a week to Wilcox's 10. And that kind of thing can get to a guy. "Men like Erik — dark, Valentino types — are always a threat to other men," Florea said. "Girls were always trying to break down Erik's trailer door. Nobody ever went after Larry. It was finally Larry's jealousy that really got to him. Then tension was from Larry to Erik. But Erik always got the bum rap."
A crew member put it more bluntly: "In the end, we like Erik and we don't like Larry."
"I'll tell you one thing, I never threw my weight around," Estrada said in his own defense after Wilcox left the show. "I never did the big cha-cha number. I never lorded it over him. Larry and I should have been tight, and we were until the series went on the air and I started to get fan mail.... I mean, if I am such a bad boy, why am I still there and why is he gone?"
Good question. But it was one that Robert Pine, who played Sgt. Joe Getraer, most likely wouldn't have bothered answering since he was comfortable in his third-banana role, knew a cushy gig when he had one, and knew enough to value a paycheck more than adulation and recognition. "People do recognize me and call me 'Sarge' and ask for my autograph, but when I sign my name they sometimes look at it like maybe they've made a mistake," he said in 1982.
Was that lack of star treatment too much for Pine's ego? "I make good money. I've got plenty of time to spend with my wife and two children," he said. "That's why it doesn't bother me to acknowledge the fact that — let's face it — Erik Estrada is the one person who matters in CHiPs and we all hang in there because of him."
Good answer. And it's why when CHiPs left the air after six seasons, Pine was hanging in there still.