With his dark good looks, bright white teeth and a twinkle in his eyes, Erik Estrada, famous worldwide for his role as “Ponch” on the motorcycle cop drama “CHiPs” (NBC, 1977-1983), was the kind of 1970s pop icon they just do not make anymore. More important than the teeth and the hair and the preteen Ponch mania, was the simple fact that Estrada’s appeal transcended ethnic lines at a time when Hispanic lead actors were not commonplace. After fading into relative obscurity for a decade or so, he resurfaced as an anti-drug advocate and rode a wave of retro popularity into TV reunions, music video appearances and a regular role on a Spanish daytime soap opera.
Of Puerto Rican decent, Henry Enrique Estrada was born March 16, 1949 and raised in the an area of the Upper East Side of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and he rarely saw his father afterward. His grandfather helped raise him in his place. Estrada struggled with navigating the world of street gangs, drugs and crime, all while trying to hold his family together from an early age. His street experience led to his first career choice, which was to be a New York City police officer. Fate stepped in when he signed up for his high school drama club – for the express purpose of meeting a girl. Before he knew it, he landed the lead role in a school play, finding himself hooked on acting.
In 1970, Estrada was hand-picked by actor and director Don Murray to play a leading role opposite Pat Boone in the feature film, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” The part was followed with a series of low-budget action movies such as “Chrome and Hot Leather,” in 1971, followed a year later with “The Ballad of Billie Blue” and “The New Centurions” with George C. Scott.. His first major movie role was in the disaster flick staple, “Airport 75,” (1975), in which he portrayed the 747 jumbo jet navigator, Julio.
As his career moved along, Estrada made numerous guest appearances on a string of iconic TV dramas, including “Hawaii 5-0” (CBS, 1968-80) in 1973, “Emergency” (NBC, 1972-79) in 1974, “The Six Million Dollar Man” (ABC, 1974-78) in 1975 and “Baretta,” (ABC, 1975-78) in 1976.
Then came his break of a lifetime. In an abrupt shift from working actor to overnight superstar, Estrada landed the co-starring role of Officer Francis “Ponch” Poncherello (an Italian!) on the highly rated “CHiPs” opposite Larry Wilcox as his partner, Officer Jon Baker. The show, which revolved around the weekly adventures of two L.A.-based California Highway Patrol officers – on motorcycles, which was a bit of a twist from the usual – lasted six years – longer than critics ever dreamed it would. Next to the milk-toast Wilcox, Estrada easily stole the show as the flashy, ever smiling lady killer – a popularity contest which would later fuel tabloid speculation that the two lead actors were at odds with one another. Even if you wanted to, you could not escape Estrada-mania. His image appeared on everything from school lunchboxes to the cover of Tiger Beat magazine, appealing to both genders and all ages. Estrada often stated that one of the reasons for the success of “CHiPs” – particularly for children and parents – was the fact that unlike other TV cop dramas of the day, the characters never drew their weapons.
At the peak of his fame and in the midst of the so-called Wilcox feud, Estrada nearly lost his life during an on-set accident that made news around the world in 1979. While filming a scene on his motorcycle – Wilcox and Estrada did a good amount of the bike riding themselves, save for any dangerous stunts – the actor was thrown from his 900-pound motorcycle, which promptly landed on him, sending him to the hospital for 10 days. Given a 50/50 chance of survival, the actor fractured several ribs and broke both wrists. At 5'10'' and 160 pounds, he was an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Wilcox. But his physical fitness routine helped him rebound from his injury: 240 sit-ups and 120 push ups on a daily basis. As a tribute to the recuperating star, Estrada was voted as one of "The 10 Sexiest Bachelors in the World" by People magazine that November.
Following a salary dispute with NBC, Estrada left "CHiPs" in the fall of 1981 and was briefly replaced by 1976 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner. With the show’s cancellation after its sixth season, the well-coiffed hunk watched his begin to fade. He appeared in a string of low-budget action films throughout the 1980s, such as “Where is Parsifal?” (1983), “Hour of the Assassin” in 1987 and “Caged Fury” in 1989. He made a return to series television in a 1987 three-part episode of cop drama “Hunter” (NBC, 1984-1991), where he played Sgt. Brad Navarro, and he made a handful of guest appearances on such shows as “Cybil” (CBS, 1995-98) and “L.A. Law” (NBC, 1986-1994).
Estrada first began to capitalize on the nostalgia for his former fame with a cameo appearance in the cop movie spoof “Loaded Weapon 1” (1993), as well as a series of Taco Bell commercials around the same time, lampooning his former pop idol status as motorcycle cop.
For a Hispanic man who never learned to speak Spanish, it was with great irony that in 1993, he landed his first big post-Ponch role on the all Spanish-speaking soap opera, “Dos Mujeres, Un Camino,” (“Two Women, One Road”). For the role of Johnny, Estrada had to take 30 straight 8-hour days of Berlitz Spanish lessons before he could begin the show, but was fed his soap opera lines over an earphone during production anyway. Originally slated for 100 episodes, the show went to 400-plus episodes, became the biggest telenovela in Latin American history and revived Estrada's nowhere career at that time.
With guest appearances on “Baywatch” (NBC, 1989-2001) and its spoof, “Son of the Beach,” (FX, 2000-01), as well as voice-overs on “King of the Hill” (Fox, 1997-) (as a as a Mexican judge on a 1998 episode) and “The Family Guy.” (Fox, 1999- ) (as “Ponch” on a 1999 episode). With nostalgia shows like “I Love the 70s” on VH1, Estrada continued to ride a wave of renewed popularity – so much so that in 1999, he appeared opposite former co-star Wilcox (the rift long since healed) in “CHiPs 99,” a reunion movie on TNT.
In 2001, Estrada landed a regular role on the daytime drama, “The Bold & the Beautiful,” (CBS, 1987- ) as Eduardo Dominguez. He continued to find work, playing a Spanish game show host on a 2002 episode of “Lizzie McGuire” (Disney Channel, 2001-04) and landed a recurring voice on the cult animated hit, “Sealab 2021,” where he again spoofed himself, playing a Latino first mate clearly modeled after Ponch. He also appeared as himself in an episode of “Scrubs,” (NBC, 2001- ), and in the Eminem video, “Just Lose It.” Like many past A-listers (or permanent D-listers), Estrada parlayed his iconic status by joining the cast of the VH1 reality series, “The Surreal Life” (VH1, 2003- ) during its second season in 2004, enjoying close quarters with the likes of such “celebs” as MC Hammer and Corey Feldman. In 2006, he landed a guest starring role as Mr. Right on an episode of “According to Jim” (ABC, 2001- ).
Estrada parlayed his police officer street cred by signing up in 2000 to be the face of “D.A.R.E.” – a police-affiliated, anti-drug program for schoolchildren. Always working, he also appeared as spokesman for several real estate enterprises in a series of infomercials.