Estrada, Erik: 1949—: Actor

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Erik Estrada: 1949: Actor

Erik Estrada, the star of one of American television's biggest hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, traded in Hollywood stardom in the early 1990s for a brand new career as the leading man in Latin TV's highest-rated telenovela (soap opera). Estrada, a native of Spanish Harlem in New York City, made his professional film debut as a gang member in The Cross and the Switchblade, released in 1970. This was followed by a handful of television and motion picture roles, leading eventually to his breakthrough role as California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop Frank "Ponch" Poncherello on NBC's hit series, CHiPs. The series, which spotlighted the exploits of Ponch and his partner Jon Baker, played by Larry Wilcox, premiered on September 15, 1977, and ran on NBC until July 17, 1983. The role of Ponch, originally conceived by scriptwriters as sort of a second banana to Wilcox's lead role as Jon Baker, soon had to be expanded in response to the immense popularity of Estrada among the show's viewers. For much of their time together, the relationship between Estrada and his co-star was strained, to say the least.

After CHiPs was cancelled by NBC in 1983, Estrada returned to his acting roots in New York City, starring in a successful limited engagement in the off-Broadway production of True West at Greenwich Village's Cherry Lane Theater. Although he stayed busy throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, none of the scores of roles he played on television and in motion pictures during this period managed to click with audiences as he had with his portrayal of Ponch on CHiPs. He next hit pay dirt south of the border when in 1993 he accepted a leading role in Mexican television's hit soap opera Dos Mujeres, Un Camino. Although produced by Mexican television, the show was a huge hit with Latino audiences throughout the Americas and won Estrada a new wave of popularity among Spanish-speaking televiewers. Estrada, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Spanish Harlem, didn't speak Spanish well enough to take on the role, so he took lessons to increase his fluency in the language.

Grew Up in Spanish Harlem

Estrada was born Henry Enrique Estrada on March 16, 1949, in New York City, the son of Renildo and Carmen Estrada. Estrada's parents divorced when he was only two years old, and for most of the first decade of his life, he, his mother, and brother and sister lived with his grandfather in the Spanish-speaking ghetto of East Harlem. Although he saw his biological father only sporadically, Estrada as a boy discovered by accident that the older Estrada was hooked on drugs. As he wrote in his autobiography, My Road from Harlem to Hollywood, "I accidentally opened the bathroom door and saw him sitting on the toilet. He had his belt around his arm and a spoon on the counter. I can still smell the burned match and see the anger mixed with shame in his eyes." He credited his mother with keeping him out of trouble and teaching him important lessons about self-respect, faith in God, morals, and perseverance. As a single mother, she was forced to dance in strip clubs to earn the money she needed to keep her family together. In her absence, young Erik spent a great deal of time with his grandfather and at the age of ten felt a deep sense of loss when this important father-figure died.

At a Glance . . .

Born Henry Enrique Estrada on March 16, 1949, in New York, NY; son of Renildo and Carmen Estrada; married Joyce Miller (divorced); married Peggy Rowe (divorced); married Nanette Mirkovich; children: (from second marriage), Anthony Eric, Brandon Michael-Paul, (from third marriage) Francesca Natalia. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Actor, 1972; author, 1997.

Addresses: Office 11288 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91604. Official website

As a pre-teen, Estrada seriously considered a career as a policeman but turned instead to acting after joining the drama club at Brandeis High School on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Although he had joined the group mostly to impress a female classmate in whom he'd become interested, Estrada soon found himself playing the lead role in a play the club was staging. In his biography, he wrote of the transformation that followed: "I was hooked on acting from that time on. I experienced emotions I had never felt before. I still don't understand it allI only know that I need to perform. It must be my way of giving to others and giving to myself at the same time."

After high school Estrada worked at a variety of jobs while continuing to pursue his interest in acting. For a while he worked overtime in a neighborhood laundromat to earn tuition money for his studies at New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). He also worked briefly as a security guard and in 1968 joined an AMDA dance troupe that paid him only $38 a week but provided him with free lunches and, more importantly, free tuition. On his own, Estrada sought out jobs as a gofer/interpreter for film companies working in his Spanish Harlem neighborhood. Estrada's first big break came when he managed to win the pivotal role of Nicky in the film production of The Cross and the Switchblade. The aspiring actor managed to convince director/screenwriter Don Murray and lead actor Pat Boone that he was right for the role by ad-libbing his audition while convincingly wielding a prop knife.

Won Leading Role in CHiPs

Next up for Estrada was a key role in the 1972 film production of Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions, in which he played rookie cop Sergio Duran. Key roles in Airport 1975, Midway, and Trackdown followed, but Estrada's biggest break came in 1977 when he was cast as California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop Frank "Ponch" Poncherello in NBC's weekly cop drama CHiPs. Although the role was a key one from the start, the audience response to Estrada was so positive that his role was significantly expanded not long after the series debuted on September 15, 1977. In short order, Estrada's popularity had eclipsed that of Larry Wilcox, who played motorcycle patrolman Jon Baker and was originally seen as the star of the series. Not surprisingly, this contributed to tension between Estrada and Wilcox and transformed the show's set into something of a battleground. As Estrada recalled in his autobiography, "The set was divided into two camps, Larry's people and my people. The factions tried to get the best of each other. As soon as the director called 'cut,' we'd head off in different directions without saying another word to each other."

Although Estrada was now far from the streets of Spanish Harlem, he retained the tough exterior he had been forced to develop to survive as a boy. Determined to see that his interests were stoutly defended against the predations of both agents and studio executives, Estrada developed a reputation as a difficult actor and a stubborn negotiator. Involved in a bitter salary dispute, the actor was missing from a number of the CHiPs episodes in the fall of 1981, replaced temporarily by gold medal-winning Olympian and aspiring actor Bruce Jenner. When the salary dispute was eventually resolved, Estrada returned to the show and Jenner disappeared. However, his strained relationship with fellow cast members continued throughout the show's run. Larry Wilcox eventually found working with Estrada too difficult, and he left the show before its final season. Wilcox was replaced by actor Tom Reilly, who played Bobby Nelson, Ponch's new partner. Before the final season was out, however, Reilly, too, had fallen out of favor with Estrada and was replaced for the show's last few episodes by Bruce Penhall.

Dubbed one of "the 10 sexiest bachelors in the world" by People magazine in November of 1979, Estrada admitted frankly in his autobiography that attracting women had never been a problem. "I'd take one girl out on a date and end up with another before the night was over," he wrote. However, he also admitted candidly that experience had shown him he was not always the best judge of character in the women he dated. His first two marriagesto Joyce Miller and Peggy Roweended unhappily, although his marriage to Rowe produced two sons, Anthony Eric and Brandon Michael-Paul. Estrada is currently married to Hollywood sound technician Nanette Mirkovich, with whom he has a daughter, Francesca Natalia. The couple and their children live in a hilltop home in the San Fernando Valley, not far from Universal Studios and Burbank Airport.

Won New Popularity with Latinos

After six seasons, the public's appetite for CHiPs and its stars had apparently been sated. In the face of falling ratings, NBC cancelled the show at the end of its 1982-1983 season. Working during hiatus from CHiPs, Estrada had kept his movie career alive with appearances in such films as I Love Liberty and The Line. He'd also won critical praise for his portrayal of a young boxer in the made-for-TV movie Honey Boy, which he also produced. With his hit series cancelled, Estrada returned to New York, where he starred in an off-Broadway production of True West. He also managed to win his fair share of roles in film and television productionsmost of them largely forgettablethroughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

Things turned around for Estrada in 1993, when he was picked to star in a telenovela produced by Televisa, the Mexican-based producer of numerous soap operas for the Spanish-speaking television audience. In Dos Mujeres, Un Camino, Estrada played Juan Daniel Villegas, better known as Johnny, an easygoing Tijuana truck driver in his forties. Happily married to Ana Maria, Johnny meets and falls in love with Tania, a small town girl determined to become a famous singer. To further complicate Johnny's life, his wife and Tania subsequently meet and become close friends. The show quickly became a big hit among Latino audiences, propelling Estrada to stardom with a whole, new audience. Although Estrada had grown up in Spanish Harlem and spoke some Spanish, the show's producers decided he needed to improve his fluency in the language and enrolled him in classes before shooting began.

Estrada's role in Dos Mujeres brought him renewed popularity on a scale he hadn't enjoyed since CHiPs.It also gave him a new appreciation for his Latin heritage, about which he wrote extensively in his autobiography. "I wish I could say that I was aware of my heritage, proud of my people, and ready to be an example for everyone who saw me as one of their own. But the truth is, for a long time I never really thought of myself in terms of my cultural credentials. I guess the best indication of that is the fact that, up until a few years ago, I never spoke anything more than pidgin Spanish. I never sought out spokesman status for causes that concerned Latinos. I never even thought of myself as breaking down race barriers in Hollywood. I was just happy to be working, whether I got the job for my talent or my skin tone."

Won Over New Generation

On the strength of his newfound popularity with Latino audiences, Estrada in the late 1990s mounted an effort to recapture the hearts of American audiences. In the last half of the decade he won roles in numerous films and made-for-TV movies, guest starred in a wide range of television series, and made the rounds of the talk shows. He played key roles in Visions and Panic in the Skies!, feature films which were released in 1996, and Tom Sawyer in 1998. He also showed up as a guest on such popular TV shows as Baywatch, Martin, Pauly, Diagnosis Murder, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

The late 1990s saw a CHiPs reunion that brought together most of the members of the show's original cast, including Estrada, Larry Wilcox, and Bruce Pen-hall. CHiPs '99, a two-hour made-for-TV movie, first aired on the TNT cable television network on October 27, 1998. It also heralded a revival in interest about the original CHiPs, about which many young viewers in the late 1990s knew nothing. To satisfy the calls for more, TNT's sister station TBS began rebroadcasting episodes of the original series on its early-morning schedule. Of the role that made him a household name, Estrada has this to say on his official website: "I always loved Ponch. It was so much fun for me to be him, to put on his duds, get on that bike, and bust the bad guys, help out the kids, and to get the babes."

Selected works


The Cross and the Switchblade, 1972.

Airport 1975, 1974.

Trackdown, 1976.

The Demon and the Mummy, 1976.

The Line, 1980.

I Love Liberty, 1982.

Il Pentito, 1985.

Hour of the Assassin, 1987.

Caged Fury, 1989.

Twisted Justice, 1990.

The Last Riders, 1991.

The Naked Truth, 1992.

The Final Goal, 1995.

Visions, 1996.

King Cobra, 1999.

Oliver Twisted, 2000.

Van Wilder, 2002.


Fire!, 1977.

CHiPs, 1977-1983.

Honeyboy, 1982.

Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission, 1988.

She Knows Too Much, 1989.

Earth Angel, 1991.

Dos Mujeres, Un Camino, 1993.

Noi Siamo Angeli, 1996.

CHiPs '99, 1998.

The Bold and the Beautiful, 2001.


My Road From Harlem to Hollywood, William Morrow & Co., 1997.



Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.

Estrada, Erik, My Road from Harlem to Hollywood, William Morrow & Co., 1997.


Entertainment Weekly, October 4, 1996; April 25, 1997.

Publishers Weekly, March 10, 1997.


"CHiPs," TV Tome, (May 21, 2003).

"CHiPs Online," Adequate, (May 21, 2003).

"Erik Estrada," Internet Movie Database, (June 11, 2003).

"Erik Estrada," Yahoo! Movies, (May 21, 2003).

Erik Estrada Official Website, (May 21, 2003).

Don Amerman

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Estrada, Erik: 1949—: Actor

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