According to recent studies, it turns out that Latinos are the most underrepresented group in Hollywood. None of us are surprised. However, between old school, studio-era stars like María Montez and Ricardo Montalbán, and new-age A-listers like Zoe Saldaña and Gael García Bernal, we’ve certainly made our mark despite Hollywood’s persistent disinterest.
In the 70s, perhaps no Latino was as internationally visible as the Spanish Harlem-born Nuyorican, Erik Estrada, who played California highway patrolman Frank “Ponch” Poncherello on CHiPs over six seasons from 1977-83. Things, of course, were different back then. A Latino lead on a primetime network series was the exception rather than the rule, and a hotshot like Estrada wouldn’t have a lot of roles to look forward to, even after such a wildly successful run on NBC (okay maybe it hasn’t changed that much).
So for this week’s Throwback Thursday, and in honor of the upcoming movie version of CHiPs, we’ve decided to take a look back at the career of a Latino icon from yesteryear and see just how far he’s made it.
Estrada was born in Manhattan’s El Barrio (East Harlem) to Puerto Rican parents and raised primarily by his mother and maternal grandmother while his father struggled with addiction. In a true up-from-the-bootstraps narrative, Estrada sold piraguas and shined shoes to put food on the family’s table before making his acting debut at 21 with The Cross and the Switchblade. Six years later, and after a handful of supporting roles, he was on CHiPs, and oh, was it glorious.
Here we see that even after getting a boot to the crotch from a guy casually sipping on a small to-go cup, Estrada’s deadly karate skills save the day (and his Canadian tuxedo). Between the martial arts, motorcycle stunts, and ravishing good looks — Estrada, by the late 70s, was something a like a primetime Steven Seagal. And that’s saying a lot. Indeed, around this time Mr. Estrada was voted one of People Magazines “10 Sexiest Bachelors in the World”. Vaya Boricua!
But what of life after CHiPs? Well this is where Mr. Estrada’s career turns into a cautionary tale for Latino actors.
After acting in a string of Italian B-movies throughout the 80s, Erik Estrada turned into a second-rate telenovela actor with a bad accent. But don’t be fooled, Dos mujeres, un camino turned out to be one of Televisa’s most successful novelas of all time, and Estrada ended up acting in a string of them all the way up CBS’ long-running soap The Bold and the Beautiful in 2001 (we’re guessing that at this point Estrada was one of the bold.)
Right around this same time, in the early 2000s, he started doing this:
Well, at least the guy’s working right? In fact, in addition to his infomercial work, it seems Estrada gets most of his gigs making fun of himself. And it takes a lot to maintain your sense of humor in this business, even if it gets you a fat royalty check every week. So hat’s off to Erik Estrada, that Latino shooting star of yesteryear. Say what you will, but he’s still laughing all the way to the bank.
On second thought, he’s probably dancing his way to the bank.
We still sorta love Erik Estrada, crappy Spanish and all. Don’t tell George Lopez, though. He’s got major beef with Estrada, going back more than thirty years.
[Fast forward to minute 11:00]