It's Summer and Erik Estrada Is Taking Stock of His Career on a Small Manhattan Stage

updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Erik Estrada will be the first to tell you that he doesn't have to knock his brains out anymore. At 35, the working-class hero who helped his grandfather sell Sno-Kones in New York's Spanish Harlem has an L.A. home stacked with antiques, a garage stocked with the requisite Rolls and Mercedes, and a bank balance plumped by his multimillion-dollar take from his stint in NBC-TV's CHiPs. "I wouldn't have to work the rest of my life if I didn't want to," he says.

Not for money maybe, but certainly for respect. Estrada has spent the summer not in the palmy comforts of L.A. but on the stage of New York's 184-seat Cherry Lane Theatre, where he is making his professional stage debut. As co-star of Sam Shepard's True West, he is treading a TV star's well-worn path to artistic approval: working for scale ($420 weekly) as a cast replacement in a serious play that he hopes will counterbalance his vid-hunk image. Like Farrah Fawcett, Morgan Fairchild and others before him, Estrada is taking on cynics who say that six years on a series does not an actor make.

On a brilliant summer day the tube's well-traveled motorcycle cop is parked in a booth at a funky-hip diner on a leafy corner in Greenwich Village. Wearing discreet gold jewelry and neat white shorts that show off his well-muscled legs, he looks less the artiste than a captain of industry at leisure. But do not think that he sees this off-Broadway venture as a mere divertissement. Reclining on the red plastic banquette, he says, "I said, 'It's time, Estrada. It's time to do something for Erik.' I have a decent TV-Q. Now I'm going to work on my acceptability. It's costing me a couple hundred a week to do this, but that's what money's for." He offers a pearly smile as big as the Ritz.

The role of Austin, a civilized screenwriter who turns savage after a tumultuous reunion with a black-sheep brother, is considerably more challenging than other offers that have come in since CHiPs' 1983 network demise. "People asked me to do exploitation-type things," says Erik, whose only post-CHiPs TV credit was Honeyboy, a boxing drama that revealed his abdominals more than his ability. "Somebody wanted me to do Grease as a road show, but that would have been like putting Officer Ponch in a musical," he scoffs. "My manager—my ex-manager—and my ex-agent said I was at a cooling-off period. I said, 'Cooling-off?' " As if to prove his point, at that moment a broken-toothed passerby beyond the plate-glass window stops dead cold and mouths, "Erik?" Estrada grins happily and gives him a thumbs-up sign.

At first producers Kevin Dowling and Allan Seskin had reservations about Erik. "I had heard he was a real bad boy," says Seskin. "But he turned out to be a very courteous man who has the undeserved reputation of being a tough character." Estrada concedes, "Writers say I'm cocky and conceited, I've never felt that way—I just always knew what I wanted."

Attacks on Estrada haven't been confined to the press and industry hubbub: In a $1.7 million 1980 lawsuit Joyce Miller Estrada alleged that during their childless yearlong marriage he sexually assaulted her and forced her to take drugs and participate in black-magic rituals. (The suit was dismissed in December 1980, when the divorce was settled.) "It's all lies, about being difficult to work with and being a bad husband," Erik says evenly. "But what are you gonna do?"

Since his marriage ended Estrada hasn't grown accustomed to divorce American-style, which in his case has included a rocky liaison with Beverly Sassoon. "I've tried to have a personal life, but I've met too many people with two faces," he says. "I'm seeing a girl now, Peggy Rowe, a songwriter I met in L.A. She has only one face and I feel hopeful. Everybody's looking for a soul mate, including me."

Presumably that elusive person will be more generous than theater critics. Their lukewarm reviews have not caught Estrada unprepared, but nevertheless his run will be cut short when True West closes prematurely on August 4. "I took this role because I'm scared, and it's the kind of play where you learn every night," he says. He stares into the street again, and his eyes follow the black stretch limo that glides by. "Roy Scheider," he shouts, banging his fist on the table. "Knock me out, man." And suddenly he is a Spanish Harlem kid who has only his ambition between him and the world.

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