The spectacular smashups in NBC's cycle drama, CHiPs, have hospitalized stuntmen and destroyed four or five cars per show. Estrada, 30, the star, used to boast that he "personally wrecked" a dozen bikes playing "Ponch," the sexy motorcycle cop. But it was a battered and shaken Estrada who left the hospital last week after a near-fatal accident. "Boy, you realize how lucky you are," he sighed.
A neophyte cyclist from New York's Spanish Harlem, Estrada had only ridden "subways and buses" when he took the role two years ago and was still practicing figure eights in his spare time. He was slowly following a camera car down an alley when he lost control of his 1,000-cc Kawasaki. As 75 horrified onlookers screamed, he was thrown chest-first onto the hood of the car, and the 900-pound machine landed on top of him.
"He was obviously in a lot of pain. He told me he couldn't breathe, so I just held his hand, to minimize the shock," recalls co-star Larry Wilcox, a Viet combat vet who has seen many such scenes. "I tried to tell him that the smothering effect he was suffering was because his ribs were broken." As he awaited an ambulance, Estrada was scared. "It's worse than you're telling me, right?" he asked Wilcox. "These are internal injuries I've got, aren't they?"
Helicoptered to the intensive care ward at UCLA Hospital, Estrada was first thought to have severed his aorta, which would have required immediate open-heart surgery. "Twice doctors told me he wouldn't make it," says Wilcox. Tests, however, showed only broken ribs, partially collapsed lungs, a fractured right wrist, a cracked sternum and clavicle and a small chin cut. After the blood in his chest was drained, he was given transfusions and sedated. Two days later doctors took him off the critical list, and Estrada sent a message to the outside: "I'll be back."
Fans from as far away as Australia and South Africa deluged the hospital with telephone calls at the rate of one a minute. Burt Reynolds (who has never met Estrada) wired "Next time leave the stunts to us." Some 500 flower arrangements and gifts poured in, including a $100 candy nude-nurse doll. The hospital received 30,000 letters for him, and a similar number went to MGM, which added another mailroom clerk to handle the flow. One fan made it to the room dressed as a priest before being hastily ejected.
Inside, the atmosphere was strained. Estrada's divorced parents, Reinaldo and Carmen, flew in from New York to join brother Joey and sister Carmen at his bedside. As his sister read get-well wishes aloud, tears streamed down Estrada's face from both pain and sentiment. "Will you still love me with scars on my chest?" he asked Kelly Black Chavez, 19, his girlfriend since he spied her sunbathing at Malibu on location two months ago. (After the ordeal he gave her diamond earrings for "putting up with this circus.")
Meanwhile MGM tried to avoid the appearance of capitalizing on their $20,000-a-week star's condition. "We in no way want to exploit his injury," said MGM Television president Ed Montanus after reports that the accident film would be carried intact. "That footage will never be aired. We want to handle this as tastefully as possible." The production company then clamped down tight, refusing to release photos even to the network's own Nightly News.
As he grew stronger, Estrada booked a number of bedside press interviews. Then his doctor abruptly canceled them. Reason? Erik insisted that a hairdresser be allowed to beautify him before he received the press, and his doctors thought it too tiring. But Wilcox visited, burying rumors of friction between the co-stars by noting: "All that negative stuff just seemed so insignificant. I really love him as a person."
Once, Estrada "had his family around him, and it was kind of weird," Wilcox confides mysteriously. "They're very heavily into witchcraft, you know. They're Puerto Ricans and the sort of people who believe they have devils in their boots. Erik [born Enrique] once told me he thought he was a witch himself."
Rather than voodoo, most insiders attribute Estrada's rapid recovery to his superb physical condition. A devotee of weight lifting and karate, the 5'10", 160-pound Estrada does 240 sit-ups and 120 push-ups daily, eats raw foods, including eggs with apple juice, and gulps fistfuls of vitamins. While recuperating with girfriend Kelly, a 24-hour nurse, a pal and a secretary in a Hollywood Hills hideaway (he requested a retreat near trails where he could ride horseback), Estrada declared he would return to TV on the Emmy Awards September 9.
CHiPs producer Cy Chermak maintained that the accident would not curtail the show's fall schedule, and writers are working an accident and recovery plot into the script. "To think he'd be off the critical list and out of the hospital in 10 days is remarkable," enthused Chermak in sentiments that must have pleased his mucho macho star. "The man is a bull."
There are two kinds of motorcycle riders: the ones who have been down and the ones who are going down. The odds are against you.—Erik Estrada