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The Law Won

8 Apr, 2007 By: John Latchem

(L-R): Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as Ponch and Jon on "CHiPs."

Erik Estrada always wanted to be a cop. This boyhood dream was one motivation for taking his best-known role, that of California Highway Patrol officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello on “CHiPs.” The first season of the seminal TV actioner hits shelves June 5 (prebook May 1) from Warner Home Video.

By the mid-1970s, Estrada was mostly known for his guest appearances playing stereotypical Hispanic bad guys on such shows as “Baretta,” “Mannix” and “Hawaii Five-O.” When he auditioned for “CHiPs,” the Ponch character had originally been written as an Italian. The role was quickly re-written to reflect Estrada's Puerto Rican background.

“Ponch was great. His warmth really came from my enjoyment of the character,” Estrada said. “I think people saw that, and that's why fans liked him, too.”

Each week, Ponch and his partner Jon Baker (played by Larry Wilcox) cruised the freeways of Los Angeles on their patrol motorcycles, solving problems without ever having to draw their guns.

“Grandparents enjoyed it,” Estrada said. “Moms and dads enjoyed it. It was the kind of show they felt comfortable with leaving the kids in front of the TV and not being concerned about what happens.”

Estrada remembers the show being especially popular with children, who would show up on location to watch the filming.

“I always kept my saddlebags filled with candy,” Estrada said. “And when the cameras stopped, I would tell the kids to come over and I'd pass out candy.”

The $39.98 CHiPs: The Complete First Season includes all 22 episodes from the 1977-78 season in a six-DVD set.

“It's pretty wild,” Estrada said. “It was really the first show of its kind. It had all the fun of the motorcycles and really put the viewer in the driver's seat.”

For the “CHiPs” DVD, Estrada provides episode introductions with special trivia and anecdotes. In another feature, he shows off his collection of “CHiPs” memorabilia. Estrada said his old motorcycle is his favorite keepsake.

“I keep it in my guest house next to the pool table,” Estrada said. “It's nice and shiny and people come by and jump on it.”

“CHiPs” has never left the public consciousness since its debut, from its classic theme music to cable reruns. Estrada and Wilcox reprised their roles in a 1998 TV reunion movie, and even spoofed themselves in a cameo in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1. A feature-film version of the series, starring Wilmer Valderrama (“That '70s Show”) as Ponch, is in the works.

“I think he's going to do a great job,” Estrada said of Valderrama. “He looks a lot like me. He could almost be my son.”

Years after the series ended in 1983, Estrada's old urge to go into police work kept gnawing at him, especially during discussions with real police officers he would encounter during various promotional events.

“Sometimes I think maybe instead of acting I should have done the cop thing,” Estrada said. “And they tell me no way — that I did more for police work because of that show. It really helped with recruitment. A lot of people who saw the show decided to be cops.”

Estrada's admiration is reflected in his decision to dedicate his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to everyone in law enforcement during the April 19 ceremony.

Last year, Estrada finally lived out his boyhood dream for the reality series “Armed & Famous,” in which various celebrities underwent police training and covered beats as officers for the Muncie, Ind., police department.

“I brought all my enthusiasm from wanting to be a cop as a kid,” Estrada said. “As far as I'm concerned, playing a cop is one thing. Being a real police officer is something entirely different.”

Unfortunately for Estrada, the series was canceled after only a handful of episodes. That didn't deter Estrada, who signed on as a reserve police officer in Muncie, bringing his career ambition full circle.

“My commitment continues,” Estrada said. “It's kind of neat to finally do this after 40 years.”

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