The 700 block of Wilmington's Dawson Street isn't typically a hotspot for celebrity sightings.
On Wednesday morning, however, passers-by with a keen eye for stars of 1970s and '80s TV would've seen one Erik Estrada − best-known for playing California Highway Patrol Officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello from 1977 to 1983 on the NBC cops show "CHiPs" − hanging out and shooting the breeze while he waited to film scenes for a religious- and community-themed home improvement show called "Divine Renovations."
Flashing that famous, high-wattage smile behind aviator sunglasses and wearing all white, along with some sweet gray lace-ups, Estrada was also rocking a red suede vest monogrammed with his initials, EE.
"That's in case I get lost," the gregarious Estrada joked to all within earshot, a group that included Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. Estrada then gave a shout-out to iconic Wilmington restaurant Winnie's on Burnett Boulevard, which satisfied his craving for a cheeseburger the first night he was in town.
"I came out to welcome him to Wilmington, thank him for doing this outreach into the community," Saffo said, before adding, "I wear aviator sunglasses because of this guy."
Estrada and Saffo were standing in front of the home of Arleashoan Davis and her son, 15-year-old Hoggard High School student Stacshawn, who had just woken up a few minutes before a film crew arrived.
"It's a blessing to get help with the house," Davis said.
Monty Hobbs of Heartlight Entertainment, along with Valerie Smaldone and Matthieu Chazareix, is a producer of "Divine Renovations."
As workers from the VineDresser landscaping service worked on the Davis' yard and volunteers painted their porch, Hobbs, a longtime worker in Wilmington's film industry, walked through a weedy backyard where a time-lapse camera was set up. He showed where new patio furniture and a basketball goal would go. Volunteers also planned on pressure-washing the house and doing other improvements.
"Divine Renovations" is shooting segments with Estrada and various Wilmington-area families in need at locations including Life Church, St. James AME Church and Living Water Ministries in Wilmington.
Hobbs said the show identified Davis, who has been homeless in the past, through Wilmington groups Family Promise of the Lower Cape Fear, which assists families that have struggled with homelessness, and Catholic Charities.
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Anne Best with Family Promise, which owns the home the Davises are living in, was on the "Divine Improvements" set Wednesday, as was Vickie Sasser with Catholic Charities.
"This is the good stuff" the group gets to do, Sasser said, standing next to a beaming Davis in her small but neat living room, which is decorated with pictures and religious paraphernalia.
Producer Hobbs said he met Estrada at a convention several years ago and they've discussed working together for some time. Now that Estrada's in Wilmington, shooting will be done by early October, even with losing a day or two of work to Hurricane Ian.
"We've been talking about it for months," Estrada said.
As the actor stood on the sidewalk outside the Davises' home, he began talking about his childhood growing up in New York City's heavily Puerto Rican East Harlem community. Estrada said his father became addicted to drugs, so his mother kicked his dad out when Estrada was just 4. The first man his mom started dating after she split from his father was a cop, and that became Estrada's dream job.
"I remember his badge," Estrada said. "It was gold."
Before he got a chance to become a police officer, however, "I got bit by the (acting) bug."
After appearing on such iconic '70s shows as "Hawaii Five-O," "Emergency!," "Mannix," "Kojak," "Police Woman," "Barnaby Jones," "Baretta" and "The Six Million Dollar Man," he finally landed his dream job, in a way, playing a cop on "CHiPs" and earning a Golden Globe nomination for his work. (Despite a very long list of credits, "Divine Renovations" is the first thing he's shot in Wilmington.)
"I was chasing the money," Estrada said, but he was able to get his mom out of Harlem.
Standing on Dawson Street, Estrada said he saw some commonalities with his situation growing up with a single mom and that of the Davises.
"I was just like these folks here today," he said.
And while he often gets work on such contemporary shows as "Cobra Kai" and the animated "Adventure Time with Finn and Jake," he said he prefers to work on projects that offer some sort of social benefit.
"It's got to do something," he said. "I owe it" to people to give back. "I feel blessed and lucky."
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"Divine Renovations" producer Chazareix, who is from France, said the whole point of "Divine Renovations" is "giving back to society" and "spread(ing) a message of love."
The idea is for the show to air on a religious or faith-based network sometime next year, but where it might wind up isn't known yet.
"We need to finish the edits and then we'll see," Chazareix said, adding that he feels good about the show's future because "we've got some star power."
Asked whether he's a religious or a spiritual person, Estrada said, "There's somebody up there higher than me, bigger than me, stronger than me."
We all have "God in ourselves," he added, "because we were made in His likeness."
While Estrada was waiting for shooting to begin, Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams walked up and began to talking to the actor. Usually, Williams is stone-faced and very serious. But as the chief talked with Estrada, the chief's face lit up and he began smiling like a little kid.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Erik Estrada in Wilmington NC shooting Divine Renovations TV show