Erik Estrada: Former “CHiPs” star is now busy making Divine Renovations (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Erik Estrada became a television star in the late 70′s, rocketing to fame on board a Kawasaki KZ1000s motorcycle as Officer Frank Poncherello on the NBC series CHiPs. Now, 45 years after that series debut, Estrada’s new project, Divine Renovation, is about to hit the airwaves on channels and streaming sites across the country.
Divine Renovation is described as a home improvement show with a faith-based twist. Season one brought Estrada to Wilmington in late 2022, with the team working with local groups like Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry, Welcome Home Angel, Coastal B.U.D.S and Catholic Charities of Raleigh on several projects to improve the lives of area families in need.
“I’m very, very pleased by it,” Estrada said about the first season. “This has got a real nice spiritual aura about it, because it’s about human kindness. It’s about compassion. And it’s about helping your fellow man. We’re paying it forward. Because some of us were lucky to have a good career and be able to accomplish things that we wanted to do.”
Estrada grew up in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, with early dreams of working as a New York City police officer. His ambitions changed, though, when he says he followed a young lady and got involved in a drama play in high school. The acting bug bit the young man, and he began auditioning for roles in the Big Apple. He landed his first part in a movie called The Cross and The Switchblade, one of many Christian films he has done since. Several parts later, Estrada moved to California to be able to audition more often for television shows. It paid off when he was cast as Officer Poncherello with California Highway Patrol on a show that would become a worldwide sensation. It also put the young actor in a place financially to accomplish one of the goals he’d set upon entering the business.
“My goal and my motivation was my Mom, to get her out of Harlem and have her living well,” he said. “Thank God CHiPs gave me that! First, I bought her a house out here, in Tarzana (California). I went to pick her up one Saturday afternoon so we’d go to lunch. I could tell she was upset, and she was crying. I said ‘Mom, what’s the matter?’ She said, ‘I want to go back to New York!’ I said, ‘Okay Ma, whatever you want’. I moved her to 57th and 8th Avenue, in a brand new building, 27th floor overlooking Tavern on the Green and Central Park. She was happy, and I took care of everything for 39 years until she passed.”
Estrada smiles when admitting he did not know how to ride a motorcycle when show creator Rick Rosner cast him for the role of Ponch. He learned along the way. Estrada suffered severe injuries in 1979 when he was involved in a crash while shooting an episode of the series. He suffered a broken wrist, several broken ribs and a punctured lung. Estrada gives a lot of credit to co-star Larry Wilcox for saving his life.
“Seven-Mary-3 (the call sign for Wilcox’s character Jon Baker) was right there,” Estrada remembers. “I was bleeding out, punctured my lung. I was turning blue. Larry, who had been to Vietnam, saw the signs. He reached down, held my hand, kept me focused on his face so I never closed my eyes. Kept me going until a CHP helicopter came to take me to UCLA (Medical Center). I was in intensive care for seven days, two weeks recovery, and then I went to Hawaii for three weeks to chill out.”
Estrada ended up sitting out several episodes of the series’ fifth season in 1981, in a contract dispute with executives at MGM over compensation. The network then hired Olympic Gold Medalist turned actor Bruce Jenner to replace him. Estrada says when the ratings started to drop, the two sides settled the dispute and he put on the uniform. The show lasted one more season before being cancelled by NBC in 1983, but forty years later it still plays in syndication all around the world.
“I was getting bushels, duffel bags of mail at MGM all the time,” he says. “It was very exciting. I was very happy the way it was going, because I was able to accomplish what I wanted to do financially with my mom. Didn’t know that it was going to be 47 years later still airing every day on Charge! TV, airing all over Europe. I still get mail from Germany, Italy, France, south Africa. It just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating.”
Estrada hit a bit of a slow spell after CHiPs was cancelled, acting in several TV shows and movies for the next decade. But, in 1993, he landed the part of Johnny in Dos Mujeres, Un Camino (Two women, One Path), a show for Televisia network.
“It (his role) was only supposed to be three months, but it lasted a year and a half,” Estrada said. “Most Latin soap operas only last about 100 episodes. This one went 457. Besides that, it was longest running, highest rated soap opera on Latin television. Still today, 27 years later, it still is.”
Even though Estrada gave up riding in the uniform of the California Highway Patrol, he never gave up on his dream to serve as a police officer. After working on the short-lived reality series Armed & Famous in Muncie, Indiana in 2007, Estrada returned to the city to work as a reserve officer. In 2009, he became deputy sheriff in Bedford County, Virginia, where he began to work on protecting children from internet predators. Estrada later helped establish an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force office by joining the St. Anthony, Idaho Police Department as a reserve officer in 2016, and remains an ICAC Task Force investigator to this day.
“I do the work, I do the time, and it’s rewarding,” he says about the law enforcement career. “But I do it for me. I don’t publicize it or talk about it, because it’s not for anybody else but me and a kid I can save. That’s it.”
Estrada just wrapped shooting on location for the second season of Divine Renovation. At 75, he has no plans to slow down, even though 53 years have passed since he landed that first on-screen role that carried a Christian message.
“If I was a plumber, I’d still be working 53 years,” Estrada says. “I’ve got to keep busy. I like being busy, and I like things that involve people, where I’m with people and I have to deal with people or around people. Because I’m a people guy, and God is a people guy, too.”
Season One of Divine Renovation launches July 1 on UP! TV Network and will then be available on streaming services including Roku, Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes and YouTube TV. I hope you enjoy the interview with Erik Estrada as much as I did.
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