Catching up with Erik Estrada, on the eve of his reign as the King of Rio.
February 7, 2007
For the last 30 years, he’s been known as “Ponch.”
In 1977, Erik Estrada had already landed a few acting roles, but it was his portrayal of Francis “Ponch” Poncherello on the TV series CHiPs that would make him a household name. For six seasons, he starred as the fun-loving, devil-may-care Ponch, a suave motorcycle cop with the California Highway Patrol, co-starring with Larry Wilcox as officer Jon Baker. The show ran for six seasons.
Estrada went on to endorse real estate and long distance phone companies and starred in the Mexican soap opera Dos Mujeres, Un Camino in 1994. In 2004, he co-starred in the reality TV program The Surreal Life and recently co-starred in the reality TV show Armed & Famous, where he trained to be a Muncie, Ind. police officer.
This weekend, Estrada makes his first visit to Lafayette, where he will reign as the king of the Krewe of Carnivale en Rio in Saturday night’s parade. We caught up with him by phone at his home in Los Angeles to get the lowdown on his new royal gig.
Have you ever been to Lafayette?
No, not at all. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been to Georgia, and Georgia has some beautiful old towns and cities. So I imagine Lafayette is very, very old and constructed many years ago. I’m looking forward to that. I love the old.
Did you have to audition for the role of King of Rio?
King of Rio? Oh, is that the thing I’m doing? I don’t know, man. No, I think since my last name’s Estrada, I think that got me in, being Latin.
Did you have to have any particular qualifications to be king of this parade?
No, I guess, maybe recognizability or something, hopefully. I believe they bring in somebody that’s been on TV, but I don’t really know what their prerequisite is for having someone there. I guess somebody’s that liked and is nice or something.
How long will you be down here?
The parade is Saturday, and I won’t leave until Sunday. I’m going to stay all night and hang out and have a good time, meet the people and just have fun. If they want to do pictures, I’ll take pictures. If they want autographs, of course, you do a lot of them. Just try to have fun with everybody and make ’em smile if I can.
And that’s pretty much your responsibilities then?
Yeah, I guess. I could just do the parade and go to my room, but I want to hang out.
Are you going to make any decrees as king?
I’ll have to think about it. We’ll see when I’m down there what kind of decrees will be needed.
You know this isn’t a full-time gig, right?
Good. I just didn’t know if they clued you in on that at all or not. So this is a one-shot deal? There’s no responsibilities after that? It’s not like Miss America or anything?
Well, I hope not. I don’t want Trump getting on me.
How many episodes of Armed and Famous aired on CBS?
On CBS, they aired five. There’s only three more to go I think, and they moved the show to VH1.
So CBS cancelled?
Well, they took it off CBS because they’re getting killed by American Idol, and so they got out of it what they wanted. They got the five out, and now they’re just going to move it over because there’s only three or two left. That’s the end of it anyway. It wasn’t a series; it was just a quick reality thing. Now they move on I guess, but I got out of it what I wanted.
What was that?
To be a cop. I always wanted to be a cop, since I was a kid. And I just took a detour and tried acting and got bit by the acting bug and went after that for a bunch of years. Then I got an opportunity to go back, and if I was interested I could go through the academy and work the streets for real.
I’m assuming you still get a lot of questions about CHiPs.
Does it bug you?
No. I love Ponch. He was great. That was a great time in America, and it was a great time for me. It did things for me that I wanted it to do.
So even today, when you’re out grocery shopping or just running errands …
Oh, people call me Ponch all the time. Still.
Do they call you Ponch more than your real name?
I get both now because I have all of these real estate commercials on, and then I did my Spanish soap opera.
How long did you do that for?
I did that for 17 months. Latin soaps only go about three months. Mine was the longest running and highest rated.
And you didn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Right. I went to Berlitz [language school].
How long did you have to train for that?
When I went to Berlitz, it was for 36 days — one on one, eight hours a day. Then I went to Mexico a month earlier, and I got into it. I did well. It was only supposed to be three months, but they made me such an offer I couldn’t refuse. I would have learned Japanese if I had to, and that, we know, is hard.
How long were you in Muncie doing Armed and Famous?
Two and a half months. It was interesting, and it was great. I’m going to keep my reserveship. I’ve made arrangements to go back to the department and take my courses and to qualify and to stay on it.
So you could go to Muncie and arrest someone right now?
Yeah, you’ve got to be in uniform, because I’m not a detective. But I could walk the streets, and if a crime occurs I could get involved.
On Armed and Famous, how was it getting tased?
Oh, man, it sucked. [Coughs] You don’t want to ever get tased. Let me tell you.
What did it feel like?
[Coughs] It feels like my throat right now. [Coughs] Damn!
You all right?
I got a sinus cold, so my sinuses keep dripping down my throat. My wife just rescued me and ran in here with a bottle of water.
Being tased is no fun. I got to tell you, it feels like — let me see. How can I describe it? Have you ever curled a dumbbell?
You know that burn that you get? Now picture every one of your muscles contracting like that at the height of that burn. That’s what it’s like. No fun. Absolutely no fun.
CHiPs has been off the air for 24 years now, right?
It never stopped airing. It’s still airing.
But the last season was ’83?
Yeah. It’s been in syndication ever since.
Do you have any idea why they’ve never released those seasons on DVD?
Oh, but we are!
April. That’s what Warner Bros. said. They’re going to incorporate that supposedly with my star on Hollywood Boulevard on the Walk of Fame with the release of the first season. I host the first season, the first 22 episodes.
You never drew your weapon in that show, did you?
You spent most of the show chasing down wacky teenagers and giving them lectures.
Yeah, a lot of lecturing. It was a different time, not like today. It was very different back then. There were only three networks, and we were on at 8 o’clock, the old Bonanza time slot, and they were on for what, 22 years or 20-something years. It was a different time in America. It was post-Vietnam. There was disco and fun clothes and free love. The streets didn’t get ruined and crazy until they turned cocaine into crack, which brought out the guns. Now you’ve got crime in every little town and a lot of it is due to drugs.
But it was a different kind of show. We would never draw our guns. When we ran out of dialogue — [laughs] — When we would run out of dialogue, we would say, “OK, let’s have a crash” or “Let’s have a chase.”
If you could change one thing about Ponch, what would it be?
I don’t know. I liked him. I really enjoyed playing him and owning him and being him, in that time. I mean you couldn’t be Ponch today without having to draw your gun or maybe get in a shootout or maybe get into a physical altercation. Times are different. Back then, you know, Ponch was having fun. He was always in trouble with the Sarge [laughs].
If you’ve got time I’d like you to play a little trivia game I’ve invented called Know Your Ponch.
What was Ponch’s call number?
Exactly. Very good. What was Ponch’s favorite football team?
Wasn’t it the Raiders?
No! The Rams!
Oh, that’s right. The Rams. Yeah, I remember now because I was a judge at the cheerleading thing. That was a long time ago, man. Go ahead. What else?
In the episode “Neighborhood Watch,” what kind of car does Ponch buy?
He’s driving a Firebird.
Yeah. Do you remember how much you paid for it?
Not in the show I don’t remember.
You’re kidding. That’s what I paid for it? Holy smack. Where did you get all of this stuff from?
Hey man, you do your research.
Damn, it’s good stuff.
What do you know about this new version of CHiPs that’s rumored to be in production?
Well, it’s not in production. I don’t think they’ve got a green light yet. But Wilmer Valderrama [Fez in That ’70s Show] is going to be the young Ponch, and I think he’ll do a fine job.
Do you think he can pull it off?
I don’t know if he can pull it off, but I do think he could be my son. He looks like he could be my son, even though my two sons who go to college don’t look like that. But I think he’s going to do a fine job with it. I read the script, and the script stays along the theme of the way we used to do it, you know.
So are you involved with that at all?
No, I’m not involved with it. Not yet anyway. We’ll see what happens. Either way it’s a win-win for me. I’m the original.