Since the popular "CHiPS" finished its six-season run in 1983, Erik Estrada has spent most of the last 10 years casting about for another series.
"I've had jobs here and there," says Estrada on a sunny October morning sitting on the porch of his comfortable Studio City home. "Where the work was, I'd go. If the money was fine, I'd take it."
There had been talk of a "CHiPS" reunion and some lesser roles he was not eager to discuss. Then came an actor's dream offer: an opportunity to star in a show created just for him. And one with a potential worldwide audience.
There was just one hitch: The series was to be produced in Mexico and it would be entirely in Spanish.
Though of Puerto Rican ancestry and raised in New York's Spanish Harlem, Estrada neither read nor wrote Spanish. In fact, he barely spoke it.
But why let a little language barrier get in the way of a great gig?
"I said, 'Look, I don't speak very good Spanish,' so what I did was I went to Berlitz and studied for 30 days," Estrada says. "Then I went to Mexico."
The result has been startling. Since its debut in September the \o7 novela \f7 "Dos Mujeres, un Camino" ("Two Women, One Road") has been the top-rated Spanish-language program in Los Angeles, based on Hispanic Nielsen ratings data. The hourlong dramatic series (produced by Televisa, Mexico's largest production company) is seen on the 37 broadcast stations owned by or affiliated with Univision Spanish-language networks, as well as on more than 600 cable stations. Nationally, the program has been in the No. 1 spot on Spanish-language television since Oct. 4.
With "Dos Mujeres," Estrada becomes the first American actor to segue from a career on American television to one in Spanish-language television.
"This has been more of a challenge to me than anything else I've done," says Estrada, during a weekend break from filming his show in Mexico. "First, to learn to read Spanish and then to learn to think and act in Spanish was a major challenge. But I like that type of challenge and I just went after it."
A big part of the show's appeal is Estrada himself, who was already well-known to American audiences because of "CHiPS," which has been a hit in syndication in Latin America.
"The Mexicans loved me from the old days of 'CHiPS' and they accept me like a \o7 primo \f7 (cousin)," Estrada says, adding that he spends most of the year living in Mexico City, in the same building where Mexican comic Cantinflas lived.
"I can't walk down the street, not when you have a \o7 novela \f7 on the air," Estrada says. "People want to hug you and touch you.,"
Starring in a nightly \o7 novela \f7 is far different from co-starring on a weekly American series. For Estrada, who is featured in the majority of scenes, the grueling pace usually makes for 16-hour days on the set.
" 'CHiPS' had a tough schedule, but this grind is worse," Estrada says. "The smog and elevation (in Mexico City) don't help. And the fact that it's not my first language causes stress and pressure. But I love Mexico. I love the food. I love the people."
Since it's virtually impossible to remember all the scripted dialogue, Estrada has a coach who feeds him lines in a concealed earpiece. And though the Berlitz classes helped him, he still is not completely comfortable acting in a foreign language.
"I'm supposed to be speaking Mexican Spanish, but I speak Puerto Rican street Spanish," he says, adding that his language skills make him the frequent recipient of much good-natured ribbing from cast and crew.
In order to make the character more believable, the show's creator, veteran Spanish-language television producer Emilio Larrosa, made Estrada's character a Mexican-born but American-reared man.
"The producer told me, 'Don't worry, we'll explain the guy was born here and then went to live in the U.S., in San Diego',"Estrada says. "So if you talk a little \o7 chistoso \f7 (funny), that's OK'."
Estrada plays a middle-aged trucker caught in a love triangle. Things become particularly sticky when his wife of many years and the mother of his three children becomes friends with his girlfriend, a beautiful young aspiring singer.
" 'CHiPS' was wonderful but I was mostly playing a pretty one-dimensional person," Estrada says. " (Officer Frank (Ponch) Poncharello) was a good guy but he didn't have to cry. He didn't have to look at a picture of his kid and go through agony. In 'Dos Mujeres' I have children, I have a separation-divorce situation. I have the emotional thing of falling in love unwittingly. It's much more all-inclusive."
Estrada was glad to be able to tap into a reservoir of personal experience for the role. "I'm 44 years old and I've lived," he says. "I've had some negative things in my life and I've suffered. I've been through a divorce and I have two sons."
Despite the exhausting pace of the series, Estrada is thrilled about his newfound success because it has put him in touch with his Latino roots.
"Since I've learned how to speak the language I've become more whole, spiritually and mentally, more centered," he says. "I've more power within myself. If there ever was an identity thing, this is the way to discover it."
\o7 "Dos Mujeres, un Camino" airs weeknights at 7 on KMEX. Reruns of "CHiPS" air weekdays at 7 a.m. on TNT.\f7