Back tot my childhood…
I’m really not a morning person. 5am, I never wake up that early, my neighbors are still asleep.
My good old cup of coffee and I stare at the sun rising on my terrace. I’m super nervous. This will be a big interview with one of my childhood heroes.
I think I am dreaming here a little bit at the age of 44, I look back to my childhood when I was 10 years old in my father’s house in Heusden-Zolder Belgium. Friday night was my big moment, the ultimate end of the week. I’m thinking of my BMX bike that is ready in the garage in my self-made police station. My blue police lamp and my California Highway Patrol helmet in gold and silver. My walkie talkie and my real handcuffs. At least I thought they were real.
I was ten years old and my neighbor kids Patrick Put, Geert De Bruyn and Joeri Gielen knew me as “Ponch”, the police officer on his Harley and Kawasaki from California. Together with his colleague John never pulled their weapons but via kindness put the bad guys in jail after spectacular and especially wild police chases.
Today is the big day, kind of like back to the future … back to the early 80s, my bmx, my home in Belgium in front of my father’s TV, my favorite show CHiPs .. Preparing myself to arrest Geert, Joeri or even the tall Patrick who is 4 years older than me later on that weekend. But first watch CHiPs!
I meet Ponch, or rather Erik Estrada, this afternoon here in Las Vegas. As if it couldn’t get any better, we meet at “Police Chase Las Vegas” for his first interview in years. Erik doesn’t do interviews, none. “Everything has already been said about Chips, Bart. People know the story, the plot and it was a good story. It has inspired me and millions of other people like no other TV show could ever do. Google it and you see and read what you need to know. I have nothing to add to that. If NBC calls me for an interview or even Elen De Generes, I say no”.
Today I talk to Erik about his mother, his dreams that have already come true and I cook one of his favorite meals, Chicken Parmigiana with penne and a delicious vodka sauce. You will find that recipe later in my cookbook.
“My favorite meal? Mmmm, I love black blood sausages with Belgian fries and broccoli Bart. Takes me back to my roots. My wife Nanette is a good cook and I love to watch her in the kitchen, I do the dishes at home and I watch her while she cooks. That’s for me, how should I say it, I see it as therapy and a great way to say “‘thanks babe for the work you put in.'”
“Sitting together in the kitchen at the table with Nanette, our daughter Francesca and the four dogs we have, eating and talking about life and our plans. That is heaven to me. I’m a family man. At home in Burbank California we are in the right place. I often think about the hard work I put into this future. As a young kid I knew almost immediately that I wanted to achieve two things. Actually three. I’ll tell you why.”
“you just got away with murder man, I never do interviews”
“Damn Bart, you just got away with a murder man, I never do interviews but talk about my mom? And what was my real goal in life? Shoot you are something else … Talking about my favorite meals and here I am telling you about how this all started…”
Let’s do it!
The world of police officers on a Harley fascinated me immensely and I had to become a police officer. My father was a heroin addict and I lived with my mother in Spanish Harlem, in the “Joe Wilson Projects” as it is called. Believe me, life was extremely hard back then. We had no money, no beautiful house, no opportunities. Once you live in the projects you are stuck, so to speak, and the chances that are offered to you are next to nothing. I was a young child and watching TV was my outlet, my window to the world. Where I could watch TV shows and dream that I could one day become a great actor.
I grew up on the streets in Spanish Harlem, sold snow cones at the age of five, ice cream on the street to earn a couple cents.
I knew I could act
“We lived in a workingman’s neighborhood and money was gold. According to many, there were few opportunities to be found there, but I believed in myself. I knew relatively quickly that I had to take that step one day and at a very young age that is not easy but I had to and would find a “hook” to become an actor. But I lived six thousand miles from the place to be, Hollywood. Hollywood is where the lights shine, certainly not in the “Projects”. In the eyes of a young child watching TV, it seems like you can just be picked off the street in Hollywood and where in my opinion the actors and actresses are just put in front of a camera and a few years later you are a superstar like Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Tom Cruise. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“I watched TV and really watched every Hollywood production I could see. My mother had other plans. Between the ages of 4 and 18 it was hammered in my head that I had to go to the Police academy in New York and at a later age I would have had a job as a cop. The endcap to do that in New York is the age of 32. So in moms eyes, time enough. Go to school, sell ice cream or take any other job you can get and when you are 18 go to the Police academy and done. Voilà!”
“The reality was different though. My mother, who was at that time in a relationship with a ‘cop’, was definitely not in favor of a career as an actor, she knew that I would rather do that but no, that did not raise any money and let alone that I could have a future to build. I had conversations with her on a regular basis, I was used to it. “Mom I want to act”. “Well, noo you gotta get yourself a job as a cop”
“That provides a career, good income and especially a pension in later life. I was four at the time when I saw a first real police officer in my life, he was my big hero, my mom’s friend, her life companion. He lived in our home and every night I heard his fantastic stories at the kitchen table and I couldn’t help but think that this was my goal. There had to and could be more out of it. How can I convince mom that I could become a police officer while cameras are running and earn my money. A life’s work that would last for 20 years.”
“At the age of 18 I came in contact with Christina Port, a beautiful lady. I spoke to her about my idea as an actor and told her that I lived in the projects. Christina was in a drama club and when I think about it now, she was the one who gave me the chance to do my first audition and I felt it, I wanted to do this. Two weeks later, bitten by the bug, I walked home with nodding knees and the ultimate confrontation was waiting for me. Mom!”
“To convince mom that I had found my pathway to the future was the most frightening conversation I ever had in my life. We come from a very different basis in life than you sometimes think. My mother was straightforward and did not bend for that matter, she was to the point. I remember the conversation I had with my mother as if it were yesterday, the moment where I told her my plan to become an actor. 1 chance of 322 million that I would succeed and she finally gave me the chance I dreamed of for so long.”
“If your mother, poor as she is at that moment, with no possibility at hand to earn money for a better life for yourself and your family, gives you that one chance to become an actor so that you can make your living with it years later earn then you take it with both hands. I remember promising her that day to make it into my career. My motivation was not for myself to make it financially, but for my mom, and that is news that I have never told in any interview.”
“I just wanted to make my mother happy and give her the life she deserved. I didn’t want her to live in the projects and have to fight for the rest of her life to keep her head above water. I love her and she really deserved better than that. She gave me the chance that night, knowing well that it was a lottery ticket that she agreed to. But she believed in my abilities. I asked her that day to continue and live in the projects because I had to work out this process and become a world-famous actor.”
Here’s what I said: “Mom, I like the feeling of becoming an actor, I make a deal with you mom. I don’t want to be a real cop, but you gotta live in the projects a little longer. But let me tell you this; If I don’t make any money with this acting thing so that I can have you live the way that I want you to live, then I will come back to New York at age 30 and I will go to the police academy and get myself a job ”. When I was 27, nine years later I signed a contract in Hollywood for the TV series Chips. The rest is history. I landed Chips, I got myself a steady job playing a cop on a tv series.
“I am happy that mom gave me the chance, it is because of my perseverance and the chance that my mother gave me that I was able to ensure that my mother never had to live in the projects again. Until her death I took the heavy financial pressure off her shouder for more than thirty years and I took care of her. On all fronts! She has lived in a beautiful apartment with a view of Central Park. On 57th and 8th avenue to be precise, just look it up. Since that day that I signed, thanks to Chips, she had the overlooking view that I wanted to give her, the view of Central Park in New York City. She was my total motivation to put bread on the table. On Sunday I go with my wife Nanette to the carnival-like farmers market in Studio City in Los Angeles. I buy my meat in Costco and love goodies.”
“My favorite restaurant in Hollywood? Now that is Japanese: Terra Sushi, but formerly Le Dome by Eddie Kerkhofs. I used to hit Le Dome, with Johny Carson, what amazing evenings we had there at Le Dome. Eddie is a fantastic host. I will soon visit Il Piccolino, his new home. I’ve heard a lot about it. Eddie is a man of the world, you should interview him sometime. I used to go to “La petite Chateau” often when I had the extra cash! Haha. Hollywood has many great restaurants, something for everyone.”
“I don’t do camping. We do the bus, planes and the train. Now, I would like to go camping in a luxury camping trailer. I used to have a 1977 Kings Highway, made the ceiling disco, I turned it into a nightclub on wheels. Don’t knock on the door, the tenants are moving! Haha”
God, the good old days…
Happy Birthday Eric!
Eric has just turned seventy this weekend.
“I still work! I work all the time actually. I have a road tour show that takes me to 25 casinos each year with multiple live shows. I do two on Saturday and two on Sunday. I also do some movies and TV shows. I don’t actually have to work anymore, but still, I don’t want to sit still. But what you don’t know…I’m actually a police officer! A sheriff … Punishment! I am an I.C.A.C investigator and deputy sheriff in Frederick County, Virginia.”
Erik pulls up his coat and there is the badge, the official I.C.A.C badge…! Together with a team of professional police officers, I hunt for sexual predators. Nobody really knows, but that’s what I do. The Erik Estrada from Chips finally became a real police officer, right? I see it as my job. Children are victims and if my contribution as a public person, as an actor, as a real police officer can secure a child and put pedophiles behind bars, then I have really achieved all my goals in my life. That makes me happy. Children are innocent creatures and each have their own dreams in their field. No child deserves to come into contact with people who are of bad will. Like me, children must be able to play at a young age and, above all, to realize dreams.”
“We create real cases on a daily basis through various online websites where we hunt for adult child rapists and communicate with those cheeky people while they think they are talking to a 13-year-old child in order to meet them. We do the entire investigation online and regularly arrest individuals who show up at the meeting points, thinking that they are going to hit a child. There I am ready with handcuffs together with my team. Of course some of them look up when they see me and recognize me as Ponch, but that is a side issue. They are guaranteed a story when they come in contact with their jail mates. I often imagine it in their eyes. “Ponch arrested me, the real one from the TV series”. Good for us, bad for them. Mission Accomplished!”
I don’t feel like a hero, I do my job…
Car: I love my Rolls Royces, my favorite one was a 1984 Silver Spirit, my dream car. I had an accident with it. I took the spirit of estacy off, left her on the street and I walked home. Never looked back at her. Even though I had for years, and I got a TV in it. So I ride Rolls Royce, a few Mercedes and Lincolns
Value: Thanks CHiPs, or no thanks mom! Thanks for giving me this opportunity. God Bless Your Soul
Hobbies: Cigar smoking, good food and traveling to Monte Carlo once a year
Pets: four small dogs: Bongo, Bambi, Cloë and Henry
Household: Nanette, daughter Francesca & two sons
Favorite dinner meal: So much, but Chicken Parmigiana with penne and garlic bread is my number 1
Red or white wine: Red! I don’t visit vineyards, that’s too tame for me.
Goal to achieve: I achieved my goal to give mom the life that she deserved, I am happy
Favorite travel destination: Monte Carlo the fireworks festival, Italy for the food, Paris for the clothing, especially Europe…
Favorite song: Erik sings I “ll be there by Michael Jackson.
Short term plan: Well, cook a meal with you at my house Bart, smoke cigars and talk about life! Bring your tent and we’ll set it up in my backyard.
I will show you my original CHiPs motorcycle that I have. One of the real ones from the series. We can go for a ride with my harleys on Mulholand Drive…
Thanks to Police Chase Las Vegas for giving me the opportunity to produce this article and have me race those amazing vehicles. Definitely go check it out when you are in Las Vegas. It is the coolest ride ever! Check HERE!
When I go outside I get a signed license plate from Erik. No coffee cups this time, but I get one at his home in Burbank 🙂
The Connections connection:
East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is a neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, New York City, roughly and compassing the area north of the Upper East Side and East 96th Street up to roughly East 142nd Street east of Fifth Avenue to the East and Harlem Rivers. It lies within the Manhattan Community District 11. Despite its name, it is generally not considered to be a part of Harlem
The neighborhood is one of the largest predominantly Latin communities in New York City, mostly made up of Puerto Ricans, as well as sizeable numbers of Dominican, Cuban and Mexican immigrants. It includes the area formerly known as Italian Harlem, in which the remnants of a once predominantly Italian community remain. The Chinese population has increased dramatically in East Harlem since 2000.