CHiPs star Erik Estrada to visit Conyers for Christian film premiere

CHiPs star Erik Estrada to visit Conyers for Christian film premiere

Erik Estrada will visit Conyers on Sept. 19 to promote the showing of a Christian film, “Finding Faith,” about a young girl who falls prey to an Internet predator. Estrada plays the sheriff in the movie. (Special Photo)

Erik Estrada will visit Conyers on Sept. 19 to promote the showing of a Christian film, “Finding Faith,” about a young girl who falls prey to an Internet predator. Estrada plays the sheriff in the movie. (Special Photo)

Fans remember Erik Estrada as one of TV’s biggest 1970s and ’80s heartthrobs, but today the father of three is the national spokesman for a group that aims to protect kids from Internet predators.

Such a role is just what one might imagine the fictional Officer Llewellyn “Ponch” Poncherello, of the California Highway Patrol, might be doing in his retirement years.

Estrada, however, is far from retirement. The actor best known for his role as Ponch, a motorcycle policeman in the hit television series “CHiPS,” has teamed up with the Safe Surfin’ Foundation and is starring in a new movie that will be screened in Conyers next month with Estrada making a special live appearance.

“Finding Faith” is a full-length motion picture based on true events about a 14-year-old girl named Faith, who has fallen victim to an online predator, and how her family survives after their daughter’s abduction.

The film will be shown at Victorious Life Church in Conyers at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 19 and is rated appropriate for teens as well as pre-teens and their families. There is no admission charge and there will be an opportunity for guests to get autographs and photographs with Estrada.

Estrada has never been to Conyers, but said in an interview this week that he is looking forward to visiting the area and making many new friends at the screening. Starring as Sheriff Michael J. Brown, Estrada plays the part of the real-life Brown, a retired law enforcement officer who is a national leader on Internet safety and the founder of Safe Surfin’ Foundation.

“I hope every family in this country will be able to see this movie to realize what can happen when we let our guards down,” Estrada said.

“Kids and teens need to know what is appropriate to share and what isn’t and parents need to make a commitment to monitoring the online activities of their children. There needs to be mutual accountability for all members of the family who spend time online.”

With a long list of popular TV and film credits, Estrada actually got his big break starring as Nicky Cruz in the Christian movie “The Cross and the Switchblade.” The movie starred Pat Boone as the Rev. David Wilkerson and is still shown to youth groups across the country because of its strong anti-drug and life-changing message.

Growing up in a section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side known as Spanish Harlem, Estrada was only 2-years-old when his parents divorced. It was a difficult time for the growing young man, who had financial responsibilities at home along with encounters with the world of drugs, street gangs and crime that surrounded his life. Through the influence of a family friend, Estrada decided at an early age to become a New York City policeman.

That changed, however, when he enrolled in his high school drama club to get close to a girl he liked. He earned the lead role in a play and said he was hooked on acting from that moment.

Estrada landed the part in “The Cross and the Switchblade,” which was followed by the role of Sergio, a rookie policeman in “The New Centurions” starring George C. Scott.

Other roles soon followed in such classic films as “Airport ’75” starring Charlton Heston and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.; “Midway” with Heston, Henry Fonda and Robert Wagner; the movie “Trackdown” and guest starring roles in almost every top dramatic TV series at the time, including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Baretta” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

His biggest hit, however, was playing Ponch in “CHiPS,” which made him a household name. People Magazine named him one of the Sexiest Bachelors Alive and his posters sold by the millions.

Following such notable success, Estrada continued acting and still managed to realize part of his childhood dream. He became a police officer, which in turn led him to get involved in an Internet crimes task force and ultimately to his role in “Finding Faith.”

“About eight years ago, I had been a police officer in Muncie, Ind., for about three years and I worked the graveyard shift to avoid my celebrity getting in the way of my duties,” he said.

“Realizing that I was wasting that celebrity, I searched for a way to be able to take advantage of it while also fulfilling my love of law enforcement. I was led to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the Safe Surfin’ Foundation.

“I contacted Sheriff Mike Brown and expressed my interest in helping his organization gain exposure and he invited me to Bedford County, Va., to see their work first hand.”

Estrada said what he saw “shocked and angered” him and resulted in his committing to help educate kids and families about the dangers that lurk on the Internet. He became the national spokesman for the foundation and has been traveling the country to warn parents and teens about how to stay safe while surfing the Internet.

Growing up in the church, Estrada said he is also glad to be promoting the role of faith in living.

“Opportunities came for me to be a Hollywood actor, which I did for several years, but I feel called now to return to faith-based films to take back the religious culture in this country that we are so rapidly losing,” he said.

“…Of course, it’s not an easy thing to take a stand for faith in any part of our society and the movie and TV industry is not any different. That’s why I am so excited about being able to return to faith-based films, where that kind of stand is seen as normal and not extreme.”

The executive producer of “Finding Faith” is Lawrence Mortorff, who has made more than 30 films in the past 20 years, including Disney’s “The Jungle Book” and “Pinocchio,” as well as “The Omega Code” and “One Night with the King.” He also produced a feature film on the life of the Rev. Billy Graham, “Billy: The Early Years” directed by Robby Benson and starring Martin Landau, Lindsay Wagner, Jennifer O’Neill, Armie Hammer and Kris Polaha.

“We’re really exited about Erik Estrada and what they’re doing with the Safe Surfin Foundation,” Victorious Life special events coordinator Jose Quinones said.

The church is located at 1615 Old McDonough Highway in Conyers.

Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at bethslaughtersexton@gmail.com.