Erik Estrada. He belongs to that pile of self-consciously ironic pop culture figures whose careers have turned into self-parody, so much so that even a mere attempt to ridicule them turns you instantly into a hack comedian. William Shatner, Gary Coleman, and pretty much anybody who has ever appeared on an episode of The Surreal Life fall into this category. Despite the majority of Estrada's kitsch value having been derived from his fame on C.H.I.P.s. and more recently as the phonetic-Spanish speaking co-star of a popular Mexican soap opera, the most obvious source for Estrada mockery has never truly been explored.
Erik Estrada's film debut was in, what is without doubt, the most famous Christian action film, if not the most notorious Christian motion picture ever made. The Cross and the Switchblade (1970) is still well remembered by Christians and reformed Christians alike, perhaps because it has never really gone away. Apparently religious classes still show it to children clean across North America and Christian bookstores, where I was able to buy my copy, are now stocking their pristine "25th Anniversary" VHS and DVD copies. The story is simple, if not completely lacking in credibility, but had enough staying power to prosper in three separate mediums. Preacher David Wilkerson first wrote The Cross and The Switchblade book based on his "true story" of being a white Christian wandering blindly into the ghettos of New York City, and using the power of his voice and bible into convincing knife wielding, "marijuana addicted" gang members to keep from killing one another. The success of the book was immediate in the Christian community and was quickly turned into a comic book by the now notorious Spire Christian Comics organization headed by religious Archie Comics staffer Al Hartley, who in turn would produce 19 simultaneously fondly and creepily remembered Archie Comics filled with unnerving Christian messages (Hartley was also the son of right wing New Jersey congressman, Fred Hartley, whose unsavoury legacy lives on in the Taft-Hartley Bill). It was around the same time that the idea for the movie was spawned and an unknown upstart, Estrada, was cast in the role of a ne'er do well Hispanic hoodlum. The autobiographical role of author Wilkerson was handed to a darling of the born again set, Pat Boone. You can currently watch large chunks of the film via YouTube. Check out these clips: one, two and three.
The soundtrack music for the film was done by a magnificent composer turned born again Christian, Ralph Carmichael. Before devoting his composition time solely to Christian projects (like the 1968 Billy Graham produced Christian action movie For Pete's Sake!), Carmichael was responsible for the amazing music in drive-in hits like The Blob (1958) and American International Pictures' curio 4D Man (1959), not to mention some very upbeat singles on the ultra square KAPP Records label. The film itself is pretty amazing strictly from an entertainment standpoint. Incredibly violent gangland brawls complete with swinging chains and baseball bats abound with Carmichael's great music adding to the excitement. In one of the film's funniest scenes Pat Boone is boarding with a pair of dishevelled Ukrainian seniors, and decides to bring a teenage junky home to make her quit smack cold turkey. As Boone and the couple lock the poor girl in a room as she sweats and screams, we are treated to a time lapse montage of Boone and the husband sitting around the kitchen table looking continuously more and more stressed out and for some reason with each dissolve wearing less and less clothing! Of course in the end Pat Boone makes both Black and Hispanic gangs understand each other with a "rousing" speech about the gospel. Ah yes, leave it to whitey to show them the err of their ways. He sends a collection plate around the crowd of troublemakers as he speaks. So blown away are the teens that an adult actually trusted them with money, that they all instantly change their ways. Pat Boone becomes a hero to Erik Estrada et al.
The Cross and The Switchblade is the Christian action movie with Erik Estrada that people have seen. But there is another, even worse, picture that belongs to this esoteric genre. Surfacing on home video only once back in the era when you generally had to rent a VCR with your movie, 1972's The Ballad of Billie Blue is another action tale of Christian morality, but this time instead of playing a Hispanic hoodlum on the streets of Harlem, Erik Estrada plays a Hispanic hoodlum in prison. When the film was released on video in the early eighties to cash in on Estrada's new found C.H.I.P.s. fame it was deceitfully re-titled with several different titles and generally playing up the Estrada angle. In reality, Estrada's role takes a back seat to the hammy performance of familiar exploitation film actor Ray Danton as Billie Blue. Ray Danton is known mostly for his roles in The Beat Generation (1959) in which he portrayed a filthy beatnik rapist and a couple years as the title character in the low-budget film The George Raft Story (1961). In Ballad, Danton plays a boozed up country music singing drug addict. One night while off his tree, he smashes someone in the head with a bottle. That someone dies, and Danton is carted off to prison where he is tossed in a cell with none other than the hero of our essay, Erik Estrada. Unfortunately, contrary to video box packaging, Estrada's role is slight. He convinces Danton to sing some country music loud and clear to drown out the sound of Estrada's fast hands and a chisel working their way through the prison bars, as he readies to make a break for it. Soon after, Erik is shot in the back by a prison guard and the film continues without his services.
Fortunately, there is another piece of odd casting that almost makes up for this. Marty Allen, one half of the now forgotten 1960s comedy team Allen & Rossi, in a tour de force of cardboard acting, plays Billie Blue's manager. Allen, still alive at age 84 and performing mostly on the cruise ship circuit, has had a long and varied career that had him dabbling in most of the shittier sides of show business. Along with his partner Steve Rossi, Marty probably endured what must go down as the single most difficult comedy gig in the history of show business. Although rarely acknowledged due to the monumental upstaging, Allen & Rossi were the act that had to directly follow The Beatles when they made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Of course their attempt at comedy schtick was over before it began as the two tried their best to shout some comedic banter over the ongoing frenzied shrieking of teenage girls who could not have cared less about "that lady I say you with last night." By 1972 Marty Allen was no stranger to appearing in awful movies either. At the height of their fame Allen & Rossi starred in a labored comedy called The Last of the Secret Agents? (1966) with a great cast. Nancy Sinatra, Lou Jacobi, Harvey Korman, Ed Sullivan and the voice of Gary Owens joined the boys (not to mention an excellent spy-music soundtrack LP), but in terms of comedy team vehicles it's in the league of Mitchell & Petrillo's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). Watch the trailer for The Last of the Secret Agents? here. Watch the notorious Martin & Lewis knock-off team in the trailer for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla over here.
Allen's legacy of trash continued into the early eighties as a panellist on a now forgotten Canadian game show hosted by Monty Hall called The Joke's On Us, along with fellow old timers Jack Carter, Nipsey Russell, and future cartoon voice actor Maurice LaMarche. The object of the game was for Monty to read the set up to a joke and have the four comedian panelists deliver four different potential punchlines. Two contestants would then have to take a stab at what they thought was the real punchline.
Throughout The Ballad of Billie Blue, Danton has the opportunity to sing many awful and hilarious country tunes. Towards the end of the picture when he is finally released from prison, he can hear gospel music in the air. Following the gospel music, he is lead to the doors of a church. The camera zooms in on a giant cross, the frame freezes, and on the screen, instead of the words The End, instead appears the phrase: The Beginning.
Erik Estrada's Christian action phase has never really been given much attention, but there is no denying these two films were his first two breaks in the acting world. Estrada of course has gone on to retain some of these "morals" by scoring the prestigious gig as the spokesperson for the police sponsored anti-drug D.A.R.E. program and as an infomercial shill for gated communities.