Erik Estrada has found the cure for an ailing career: creamed corn.
Once known for flashing his pistol and his pearly whites on the Pacific Coast Highway, Estrada spent six seasons playing motorcycle cop Frank ''Ponch'' Poncherello on the NBC TV hit CHiPs. Since the show ran out of gas in 1983, he has pretty much steered his way out of the fast lane. Until now.
Thanks to alternative rock's penchant for irony, Estrada's grinning mug has been popping up in heavy rotation on MTV. First, the California punk band Bad Religion cast Ponch in the video for 1995's ''Infected.'' Next, the Butthole Surfers enlisted the erstwhile enforcer in their hit clip for ''Pepper.'' Its plot, according to guitarist Paul Leary: ''We've kidnapped Erik Estrada and forced him to eat creamed corn, and he gets rescued by the cops.''
If that sounds like an undignified diet for a star, Estrada doesn't mind. The actor whose skirmishes with NBC and costar Larry Wilcox made for a rather churlish image during his salad days credits manager Konrad Leh for tracking down projects that tweak that reputation. ''People may perceive you to be a pain in the ass,'' says Estrada, 47. ''But then they see that you don't mind being laughed at and laughing at yourself. And the new generation gets to see you and go, 'Hey, pretty cool!' ''
Actually, that generation thought Estrada was pretty cool back when Ponch was the girl-crazy Casanova of the California Highway Patrol. ''If the highway patrol could have rock stars,'' says Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin, ''he would've been the one.''
As time wore on, the word cameo replaced Romeo in Estrada's bio. The twice-divorced father of two hasn't had an American TV series since the demise of CHiPs, but he's made guest appearances on plenty: Cybill, The Nanny, L.A. Law. He spent the better part of the late '80s and early '90s starring in ultra-low-budget, direct-to-video movies like Spirits, Night of the Wilding, and The Divine Enforcer. But his biggest break came in Mexico, where he landed in a hugely popular soap called Dos Mujeres, Un Camino in 1993. (Though he grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, he had to take Spanish lessons for the part.)
Lately, banking on his newly hip status, Estrada sounds intent on mounting a comeback north of the border. He just teamed up with polyester-era colleagues such as Donny Osmond and Jimmie Walker for a VH1 special on the '70s, and he's talking to Wilcox and others from the show about dusting off the Kawasakis for a CHiPs reunion. His autobiography is due this spring. Suddenly CHiPs looks like more of a blessing than a curse which comes as no shock to Estrada. ''I always loved Ponch, man,'' he sighs. ''It was so much fun for me to be him, to put on my duds and get on that bike and bust the bad guys and help out the kids.'' A pause. ''And to get the babes.''