Erik Estrada on His Liv and Maddie Guest Spot and Why He's a Cop In Real Life
Last week, we had an exclusive clip of Erik Estrada, known to most people as CHP motorcycle cop Frank "Ponch" Poncherello on the 1977-83 series CHiPs, guest starring on the Disney Channel sitcom Liv and Maddie. In the episode on Sunday, May 22, he plays the father of Liv and Maddie's friend Andie (Victoria Moroles), who is very skeptical of her burgeoning relationship with reformed "crumbum" Dump Truck (Shak Ghacha).
We figured it was a good opportunity to catch up with Estrada, so we talked to him about doing a Disney guest spot, his teenage daughter, how CHiPs helped the image of Latinos on TV, and why he became a police reservist in Muncie, Indiana, after doing the job for a reality show called Armed and Famous.
How you get involved guesting on Liv and Maddie?
The producer, John Beck, had worked with Jim before on two episodes of According to Jim. He always said to me, "You know what, I'm going to do a show and I got to get you on. I got to you get on." I said, "Okay, okay." He finally found the spot and idea and then brought me in as a father of one of the characters, who's being approached by a guy that likes her and she likes him. His nickname Dump Truck, and I said, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You want to go with a guy that named Dump Truck? I got to meet this yahoo." That's the whole episode.
The guy's a good guy. Karen, one of the characters in the show, decides to have me over to the house where she has him there. He shows his sophistication and stuff, and we get on and it turns out to be pretty funny and a really good show.
You have teenagers at home, right?
I got a 16-year-old daughter who's just got her permit and the whole deal, boys and that. There's no boys in the picture right now because she's really into school and really into her bunch of girlfriends and just ... We vacation a lot. We're real tight knit, so there's no room for boys right now and she's not really interested. She wants to chase her career and do her thing.
What would that career be?
Well, she's done commercials already and now she ... When she's eight years old, I say to her friend Jessica, "Look, you are so animated, you're so funny and you're so live and enthusiastic. It'd be great if you take an acting class and go out for parts. You will get a good agent and we send you out." She goes, "Man, I'm not interested. Nah." Okay, but when she turns 12, she says, "Okay, dad. I want to try it." I get her into it, she tries it. She does really well. She goes go out for an AIG commercial, kills it, knocks it out.
First commercial ever, the director says to me, "How many of these has she done? She's so good at it." I said, "Oh, she's been at it for a while," which is not true. This is her first commercial. She made a ton of money and she was great. She had an instinct for continuity. Every time they shouted give ... When they shoot a commercial, they shoot it like 30 times. She does really well and these people were blown away. I said, "Wow, she's a natural." You can't teach somebody continuity. They either got that or they don't got it, and she has it.
No warnings from you about the business or anything like that?
No, no. She's too young for that. That comes later. Anyway, listen, when my daughter was eight years old I started talking to her about life. I would say to her, "You know, the hardest thing you're ever going to do in your life is leave while you're in love." She goes, "Uh?" I said, "The hardest thing you're going to do in life is leave while you're in love." She says, "What is that?" I say, "Honey, you'll get it one day, but just remember I said that to you." When she was around 13, 14 she came to me and said, "Daddy, I get what you mean." I'm talking about being involved with someone that's not conducive to your betterment. She's pretty sharp. She's a sharp kid. I'm raising her Puerto Rican street.
Because the show is geared towards teens and pre-teens, do you have to be a little bit goofier and over the top in the part?
If you look at CHiPs, it was mostly for the young people, family hour, teaching kids that they could have a relationship with law enforcement and not be afraid of the uniform and so forth. It was community minded. We never drew our guns. It was that type of show. Doing a comedy sitcom, that is something that I would love to do as a series. I would love to be a parent with a couple of kids, different age range. Two boys and a teenage daughter and a 3-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl and older teenager and a housekeeper. I'd love to do that kind of thing because comedy is what I like to do. When I got this, I said, "This is just perfect for what I like." Be the dad, you don't have to be the comic relief or the comedian If it's written right, it's funny.
Were you surprised that when you came onto that first scene that you got a round of applause? Obviously, the studio audience was probably mixed between kids and their parents...
I know where you're going with this, but my answer to the question that you almost finished asking, if I'm correct and if my instincts are right, most of the parents grew up watching me. Of course they pass that on to the kids. Say, "This is Erik Estrada. I grew up with him. Daddy had his poster in the locker room in school and the house," and stuff like that. They were like, "Okay, mom likes him. Let me see." That's how that works. I was in Italy last summer on vacation and CHiPs was playing there. It plays all over the world continuously.
Considering the show started almost 40 years ago, which blows my mind, how does it still translate nowadays?
Visually, it's fun to watch. It's two cowboys on motorcycles. It's flashy, it's exciting. Everybody likes motorcycles, everybody likes car chases and crashes and so forth. Then you got the relationship between the street kid and the country kid. One is by the book, knows the book and the other one read the book, but gets in trouble and then he goes, "Oh, I made a mistake." Then he's always in trouble with the sergeant, with the authority. That's very attractive to young people. They like that and it's funny and it's fun.
By the way, is it true that you didn't know how to ride a motorcycle at all before you started that show?
Yeah. I grew up in Spanish Harlem, New York. I rode the subway or the bus. Who knew about bikes? They taught me. Once I got the role, they had a guy, Scott Wilson from Sacramento, come down, motorcycle instructor and he ran me through the course and taught me how to do figure eights and stopping without putting my feet down. Anybody can go fast, but it's the slow stuff that takes technique and practice.
After the show was over, did you keep riding?
Yeah. I belong to the Blue Knights. You ever hear of the Blue Knights Motorcycle Club? Well, I'm a member of that and then I'm a Moose rider with Moose Lodge. This January 25th I'm going to be in Winchester, Virginia for a Wounded Warrior Ride with Harley Davidson.
Getting back to Liv and Maddie, do you think there's a potential that you might do more episodes of the show?
I will do as many episodes as they like me to do. I really am fond of John Beck, who produces it with Ron [Hart]. It's Disney. I love Disney. God, I love Disneyland and Disney World. One of my favorite places forever. I raised my kids on all that. If they were to write something or make me semi-regular, I would love it. I would show up and do what they wanted me to do and do it right.
For a veteran like you, what do you get from being on the set with a bunch of kids?
It's a hoot for me. I love kids and it's all about kids there. It's very well known that they're the future, but young people, God, they deserve a break. They deserve guidance. They deserve education, just like ... I believe as a parent, I'm father to all children that I come across.
You like to mentor and you like to teach?
Yeah, I like to teach and show by example.
What's the example that you're trying to set?
Well, to keep your nose clean. You be graceful, you'll be humble when you meet people. Just because you are on a series and you're basically a recognizable name, and you got great recognizable celebrity, you use your celebrity for helping others. That's what celebrity's for. Celebrity, popularity and all that should be used to bring attention to a cause, especially if it helps the fellow man. That kind of thing. There's so many needy things out there that people who have popularity and recognizability should use the celebrity for.
Did CHiPs put you in a position where you could be choosy about the roles you picked from after it ended?
Financially, yeah. Financially, the first two things I did with that was I took my mother out of the projects in New York and bought her a house in Tarzana, out here in California. The poor thing, she sat in it for three weeks and I went to pick her up one day to take her to lunch and she's crying. I said, "Ma, why are you crying? Come on. What's going on? Who said what? Let me punch them out." She says, "No, Poppel,"—Poppel was my street name, my nickname as a kid—she said, "No, Poppel, I want to go back to New York." She loved New York. I took her in '78 and I put her in a beautiful building on 57th and 8th Avenue. She's still there. She has a view of the park and she's very happy. The doorman and everybody take care of her for me, whatever she needs. That was one of the wonderful things I was able to do with that.
The other thing is I was able to make a move that was kind of risky, but I did it. Up until then I played the Latino with the gun, the knife, the brick, the pimp, the bad boy. All the time, stereotypical casting on all the TV [shows]. On Mannix I was the junkie. I was a murderer on Hawaii Five-0. I was an arsonist in Kojak. Then when CHiPs came along, NBC said, "No. We know this kid. We saw him last week on Medical Center. He was an arrogant tennis player." The producer says, "Well, look. Let's screen test him in our final choice. We'll screen test it to him." Once they put me in the uniform, I was neutral, so it made me look like a good guy, right?
Then I got the part. Once I got the part, I walked in to the producer's office and I said, "We need to change something." Right away the producer looks at you like, "Oh, man. This guy's going to be a pain in the butt." I said, "No. No. No. No. No. Please, don't look at me that way. This makes sense. So many years I played the bad guy, stereotypical Latino. Why don't we take Poncherelli, who was an Italian/American cop," the [name of the] role was written "Poncherelli," and I said, "Let's change the name to Poncherello. Make it sound more Latin and let's make my character Hispanic/American motor cop." They went for it. Ever since then, you got Jimmy Smits, Eddie Olmos. It helped open the doors and change perspective of the stereotypical Latino in television back then. Those were the two great things I was able to do with that.
We can draw a straight line from Ponch then to Edward James Olmos playing Adama on Battlestar Galactica is what you're trying to say?
No. How about playing a captain in Miami Vice? The Galactica stuff, that's a whole other genre. That's a whole other world of make-believe. And Jimmy Smits was a lawyer in LA Law and [in] NYPD [Blue], a cop. Hector Elizondo played a director of a hospital in Chicago Hope.
So you're saying that the fact that Ponch was Latino opened that door?
No. What I'm saying is that I was given an opportunity. I had an opportunity to make a change, or to present a change, and see if it would be accepted. Once I did that, came all these other things. If it came because of that, fine. What I'm saying, I'm not responsible for their careers and their choices, but I'm saying that that was the first time primetime positive role of a Hispanic/American cop on TV when it was [just] three networks.
Since then though, you've done some interesting stuff. You've done a telenovela, you've done a lot of guest spots. Is it because you're just like, "I want to do stuff that's interesting to me?"
Yeah. Of course. Of course. I've done a couple of flunky things, but that's okay. I'm a worker. I came out here to work. I wasn't looking for the stardom. That came. I came out here to work and look for roles and get my mother out of the projects. I was able to do that. Now, I do what I like. I'm offered stuff all the time and I turn this stuff down that I don't like. At this point in time in my life, I want to pick and choose what makes me comfortable and what I think I'm going to have good fun and what I'm going to do a good job in. Fun, easy stuff where you go home smiling. And you work with a lot of nice people, otherwise I can stay home.
Otherwise I can chill, but I'm not one to chill because I started working at the age of five selling snow cones in the streets of Harlem when I was a kid and shine shoes and all that. I'm a worker. I can't sit.
Why did you pursue being a volunteer cop? Was it just the experience of doing CHiPs?
Okay. You want me to tell you, I'll tell you. I grew up in New York. I grew up in Spanish Harlem. My dad was a junkie. He turned out to be a drug addict. My mother kicked him out when I was around three years old because she didn't want him polluting us. Then, we moved to another project on the West Side, Amsterdam Projects. Then my mother met a cop and started dating this guy, who's a cop. He worked for CSI. I really liked this guy. First man I ever loved was a cop. This guy was wonderful and he was with us for eight, nine years, so I decided I'm going to be a New York cop. I was almost a New York cop until I met a girl who was into acting and I said, "If I want to get close to this girl, I got to get into acting." I did it just to meet her, and next thing I know, I got bit by the acting bug.
Now, I got to tell my mother. "Hey, mom. You know what? I don't want to be a cop right now. I want to try this acting thing." She freaked out. She crying and everything. I said, "Ma, come on. Let me try it, ma. Let me try. I'll make a deal with you, ma. If I can't make a living at the acting profession that I'm choosing right now instead of being a cop, by the age of 30 I can come back to New York and still be eligible to go to the police academy," because 32 years old was the cut off date. I said, "Then you can be my roommate. Get you out of the projects. You'll be living with me and I'll be a New York cop. Otherwise, if I can make a living and have you living the way I want you to live, the way your husband should have had you living, if I can't do that I'll come back." Luckily, at 27, I got CHiPs. Once that money started rolling in, the first thing I did was I got my mother living the way I wanted her to live and I take care of everything. She hasn't worked in 30-some odd years. I won't allow her to work.
At what point did you say, "Hey, I want to go back to start doing that again," on a volunteer basis?
Well, I was presented with an opportunity to go to Muncie, Indiana and do a reserve shift of seven weeks. I took it. I wanted to see if I still had that passion as a child, my first passion. I did. I realized that I did, so I stayed. I did it and I stayed a cop and am still a cop. I do internet crimes against children. I promote internet safety and I promote internet safety education in schools, because nobody's teaching our children how to be safe in these chat rooms and they're getting taken.
How long have you been doing that?
11 years now.
You have to be on duty a certain number of hours a year to keep your reserve status. Do you actually pull people over and go to crime scenes?
No. I don't pull people over. I don't do that. We go online and get a guy that crosses the line and breaks the law, is involved in child pornography and child things and then we go pick him up. When we go pick them up they're very surprised. They look around to see if there's a camera once they see me. Once I turn around and I cuff them and take them, then they know it's for real.
Is that the type of thing where you'll keep doing that as long as you're able to?
I will probably do it for another five years or so and then it's time to let it go, because the child stuff is very effecting to the psyche of one's mind. It's not something you want to do forever.
What are other stuff are we going to see you in besides Liv and Maddie?
Whatever. They'll be stuff. Just keep your eyes open and your ears open. There'll be stuff. I always work. I never stop.
Liv and Maddie, Sundays, 9/8c, Disney Channel.