Back In The Chips

NAME: Erik Estrada

DESCRIPTION: “CHiPs” TV star turned video actor.

LAST SEEN: Starring in a Mexican soap opera.

“I’m not bitter about what happened to me,” says Erik Estrada from his home in the Hollywood Hills. The onetime star of “CHiPs,” the NBC series about California motorcycle cops that ran from 1977 to ’82, is referring to a long career lull after tangling with one of Hollywood’s most notorious executives.

Estrada, 46, has reason to dismiss the past. He is enjoying a career resurgence – albeit south of the border – starring in one of the Latin world’s most-watched TV shows, a telenovela called “Dos Mujeres, Un Camino” (Two Women, One Road).

“Hey, the streets of Harlem taught me how to make a buck,” he says.

Estrada grew up in New York City’s East Harlem, son of divorced parents of Puerto Rican descent. His first job was selling snow cones from his grandfather’s sidewalk cart. He aspired to a police career with New York’s finest, but the applause he got for his part in a high school play set his course.

He worked his way up through small parts in episodic TV shows, at first in Gotham. Moving to L.A., Estrada finally landed the role as the free-spirited officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello in “CHiPs.”

But in 1981, Estrada ankled the show for seven weeks in a bitter dispute with MGM TV, the show’s producer. The issue was money owed to the star and the series creator, Rick Rosner, once the show had been sold to a syndicator. A settlement was finally reached, but then-MGM exec David Begelman was incensed, according to Estrada.

“He called me a spic box-boy,” says Estrada. “The rumor on the street was I’d won the battle but lost the war.”

Begelman denies making the remark and recalls the incident differently. “I told him he needed better manners,” says Begelman, who describes Estrada coming into his office “in uniform” and “intimidating my secretaries.”

The incident left Estrada with a reputation for being temperamental. Although he has done guest spots on TV shows since “CHiPs” and made a failed pilot with OJ. Simpson called “K.O. Kellog,” Estrada has not starred in a series since.

Estrada was making a feature film in Mexico, one of dozens of direct-to-video film jobs he has taken over the years, when he was approached by a producer from Televisa, the Mexican media conglom, about starring in a telenovela.

“I looked at the script and saw it was all in Spanish,” says Estrada, who grew up speaking only English. “But then they made me an offer nobody could refuse and sent me a $100,000 deposit.”

Estrada signed on for a 30-day crash course at Berlitz and went to Mexico City. The four-month gig turned into 13 months as “Dos Mujeres” became the top-rated show in Mexico. It now plays in dozens of countries, making Estrada one of the best-known actors in the world.

He now has a contract with Morrow Books to write an autobiography and is turning up increasingly in TV shows north of the border such as “The Nanny” and “Cybill.” He says it’s “very likely” he’ll do another telenovela for Televisa soon. And he is getting married for the third time.

But the telenovela experience was profound, he says. “Once I realized I was learning to read and speak the language of my forefathers, nothing I had ever done in my life made me prouder than this. It made me a whole different person than what I was.”

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