Talking to Erik Estrada is like having a conversation with a kid in a candy store. He’s a ball of energy reveling in his latest professional feat: the made-for-TV movie Husband for Hire, which airs Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time, on the Oxygen Network. The romantic comedy features the former CHiPS star as a protective father who has to choose between two men (Mark Consuelos and Mario López) for his daughter Lola (Nadine Velásquez) to marry. Estrada is pumped up for the movie, and he thinks all Latinos should be too.
Read on for our exclusive interview with the 59-year-old actor of Puerto Rican descent, who gives us an inside look at the road to becoming “Ponch” Poncherello, learning Spanish for Televisa’s acclaimed telenovela Dos mujeres, un camino – which earned him some big bucks! –, and how he played a role in abolishing the silly stereotype of the Latino thug.
Tell me about “Husband for Hire”…
It’s a romantic comedy with a lot of twists and turns, an all-Latino cast, which is wonderful. , and…wait til you see it! You’re gonna love the movie! It really is entertaining and very endearing. And the movie looks very expensive. It’s very classy. It puts the Hispanic world in a beautiful light.
What about the cast?
When I look at Mario López I see myself 30 years ago (he laughs). You know? When I was running around shirtless. And also Mark Consuelos is such a terrific guy. I’m going to get him to be fluent in Spanish by the time I’m done with him. We shared opinions. There were no egos. Everyone was sharing and caring.
Does the movie get away from the typical representations of Hispanics?
This movie gets away from all the stereotypical basura that’s always been out there about us. The father is stern like most Latino fathers, he’s a self-made man, so that’s why he is that way, and he loves his children like all Latin men do. We come off in a good light. Every Latino should be very proud to see a show like this because there’s no killing, there’s no gangs, no knifing, no car crashes, it’s a total family situation of a higher-class family.
What was it like being one of the first big Hispanic actors in the States?
When I was auditioning for CHiPS, I auditioned as an Italian-American cop. When I got the role, originally Poncherello was Poncherelli. When I got the part – this is in the ’70s – I said it’s time for change on television. Here I am an Hispanic-American actor, born and raised in New York City, Puerto Rican background, it’s time that we make my character an Hispanic-American cop. I was one of the first to break the mold.
Did you come across any obstacles while breaking that mold?
No no, because I had the muscle. You need the power, then you get the women, you know what I mean? (he cracks up) So it worked really well. I walked in there and I signed my contract and just said ‘Hey, you gotta do this.’ Because up until that time I was the Latino with the gun, the knife, the brick, the pimp, the badass, all the time. So we changed it. And it was wonderful. And it worked.
Tell me about your experience working on “Dos mujeres, un camino”…
I was in Mexico doing a movie in Spanish, but I was getting dubbed in Spanish, because I didn’t know how to read or speak Spanish. So this producer from Televisa comes up to me and says ‘We want to do a show. We’ll make it so you were born in Mexico, you were raised in San Diego, then you come back to Mexico to live.’ And I said ‘oh cool, I’m going to speak Spanglish.’ Then the first script came to me and it was all in Spanish, and I said ‘I can’t do this!’ I couldn’t even read it! So I asked my manager to tell Televisa I wanted $500,000 for 100 episodes, thinking they’d go away. But they came back and said ok. [So I told them] I want a car, a chauffeur, a bodyguard and a cook, and I want $75,000 wired to my account. I figured they’d go away after that. And they said ok. So now, I’m really stuck. So I went to a language academy, got an instructor for six weeks and learned to read Spanish. It [was] the longest-running, highest-rated soap opera in the history of Latin television. It was 457 episodes…I made over $2 million doing that show.
Was it fulfilling to act in Spanish?
It endeared me more to the Hispanics in Mexico and around the world. And the people absolutely loved the fact that here I was a Hispanic-American in America, successful, and then coming to their country, learning the culture, learning the language, to do work there. How cool is that? They loved me for it.
In addition to all your successes, you’re also considered a sort of cult hero. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because a lot of them grew up watching me, and when they see me and they meet me it reminds them of good times in their lives. Maybe because that period was a good, quiet, wonderful period in America.