CHiPs star Erik Estrada has exchanged Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello for Nick “Loopin’” Lopez, a high-flying helicopter cop for a new generation ... who just happens to sound a lot like Ponch.
The 65-year-old actor tells Spinoff Online he was thrilled to play the winking send-up of his iconic role for the Disney animated sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue, in which he voice to one of the stars of a familiar-looking TV show called CHoPs.
With the film arriving today on Blu-ray and DVD, Estrada discusses his latest role, the enduring appeal of Ponch and Jon, and his thoughts on a CHiPs movie.
Spinoff Online: What was your first reaction when they came to you with this Ponch-like character and setup and asked you to take part in the Planes sequel?
Erik Estrada: Well, I was very, very excited about the fact that I was going to be in a Disney cartoon, which I think every actor wants to do. I loved the concept of representing the CHiPs TV show within the movie, and how pivotal and important it was because of the lead character, [played by] Ed Harris. I was very excited and happy to do it. I jumped for joy, and I did it. It was fun. Then we had this great cast dinner, and I got to see a lot of people I had not seen in a long time. It was nice. Then the premiere was great. Went with my wife and my daughter, who is 14. I used to take her to all the Disney premieres when she was younger. We had it at the Egyptian Theatre, which is very landmark. It was a great time from that one job. A lot of nice things happened.
Every so often you get to revisit that iconic CHiPs role, sometimes playfully like this one. What does it mean to you to be able to go back and touch that cornerstone of your acting career from time to time?
Well, while I was doing the show, I was just so happy to have a job so I could pay for my mother's apartment and get her out of the Spanish Harlem and put her in a really nice place in Midtown Manhattan. I still got her there – she won't move to California. That was great. I didn't realize the impact the show had. I used to get a lot of fan mail and do appearances. I didn't realize that, 30 years later, people became police officers or got in law enforcement or got into first responders or got into the public service workforce because of the influence of show on them. I didn't realize it had such an impact. And also, I was going to be a police officer instead of an actor. An actor was a second choice: maybe I could make a living, and then, boom – it turned out OK. I don't mind representing Ponch. I love the guy! A lot of who he was is me. A lot of what he's about was me. It actually became an easy character to play. All I had to do was put a uniform on. So I had the best of both worlds: I wanted to be a cop, so here I was an actor playing a cop. It was great. I loved the influence that it had on a lot of people. Now that they've got it in syndication every day I'm getting a whole new groups of children and calls to do various child charity events.
Have you gotten a traffic ticket in the last 30-odd years? Or is it impossible for an officer in California to give you a ticket?
I got a ticket the first year of CHiPs, but that was the first year – the show hadn't even aired – because I was speeding to work to get to the set. Pulled over by a CHP officer and by the time I got to the set after he wrote me up, he already went over the wire saying, "I just popped this Erik Estrada character, the guy playing Ponch." So when I got to the set everybody knew I got a ticket, so he was excited about it. I think it was the notch in his belt or whatever, but I'm sure by now he's regretting it. A lot of them will say to me – they'll come up to the car, they have their standard procedure to run your license and car stuff, then I'll be ready to sign a ticket if I've done wrong. And the guy will turn to me and say "I can't give you a ticket! You're one of the reasons why I'm wearing the uniform!" So that's happened to me and it's great. Kind of humbles you even more, makes you feel like a real jerk for violating the law by speeding or making an illegal u-turn.
Well, we've been hearing about – this comes up every so often but it sounds like it's in a serious mode right now that there may be a reboot or remake of CHiPs for the big screen. I'm curious, your thoughts on it? I don't know if they've talked to you at all about popping in to either do a cameo or even a more major role. What are you thinking right now, as far the news about that?
Well, many years ago they were talking about Wilmer Valderrama playing Ponch. I happened to be doing According to Jim at the time so I went over to the set of his show and I congratulated him and we talked a little bit. I thought it was a great idea. But then that died out after a while because the Highway Patrol is not going to put their blessing on it if it's too inappropriate. You know what I mean? Now they're talking about Michael Pena doing Ponch. I think he'd be great for it, too. He's a good, good, good actor – he's in the current movie Fury with Brad Pitt, he's done a lot of other stuff and he's very good. They haven't asked me or mentioned anything to me. It's just been talk about it. About two months ago it came out across the wire. I just don't want to walk in and say, "Hi" and walk out. I'd love to play his father. Just for a nice two page scene where I'm chewing him out for not sticking to the grind and doing the job. Chew him out for all the things that I used to get chewed out for [laughs]. I think that would be a funny scene.
I'm sure now you've got to the point where parents point you out to their children and rather than say "That's Ponch from CHiPs," they say 'That's the guy from Planes: Fire & Rescue." What's it like to have that brand-new audience?
It's delightful. It really, really is. It's a make you feel good moment. A young child, 5-year-old, 6-year-old, 7-year-old, saying, "That's the guy that plays the helicopter in the movie, mommy." Then I tell the parents, "Take the kid home and show him a CHiPs rerun. Get him hooked."
You were one of the trailblazers for Latino actors on television and leading roles. I'm just curious on your perspective on how you've seen things change over the years and also where maybe we still have to go as far as that goes?
When I got CHiPs, I auditioned as an Italian-American cop for the role, name of Poncherelli. Once I was signed to do the role, I told the producers, "We've got to change one thing. We've got to change the name of Poncherelli to Poncherello. Instead of being Italian-American cop, let's make him a Latin-American cop." So they went for it. After that, it helped because up to that time we never really had any primetime 8 o'clock family hour, Hispanic-American playing a positive role image as an officer, especially. After me, came Eddie Olmos in Miami Vice as a captain. Jimmy Smits in NYPD Blue, Hector Elizondo in Chicago Hope as director of a hospital. That helped in that sense of time, but it was back in '77 – quite early. Today Latinos are still out there. You got Emilio Rivera, who's on Sons of Anarchy. He's done very well. He's got a tremendous following. You have some actors out there working and some are still playing this stereotypical bad guy. I think it's helped. It's changed somewhat.
What keeps you excited about working as an actor at this stage of your career?
Me, personally, I'm a workaholic, so when I'm not at work, you'll find me at Lowes or Home Depot, or you'll find me in the backyard. Just, ah, going crazy doing stuff to keep busy. […] love going to work. I've got to be working. I've got to be active. So when I know I have a job or a talk show to do or appearance to do, I get very excited. And that gives me fuel. Just keeps me going. I mean, just once – that's why I will never retire. I can't retire. What am I going to do? You've got to keep busy. I'm one of those that I'll keep going until I'm dying. But I can't stop. What keeps me excited about working in my business is having the next job.