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Ponch returns to TV…with a paunch

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Celebrity gossip has poured out of Muncie, Ind., lately. Not because some hot power couple bought a farm or a troubled starlet started rehab there, but because the Muncie Police Department has a few new faces in uniform. Famous ones.

In the new CBS reality show "Armed & Famous," celebrities become coppers in the small Indiana town. And life in Muncie may never be the same with the likes of Jackson family flunky LaToya, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna of "Jackass," MTV darling–Ozzy offspring Jack Osbourne and WWE alum Trish Stratus wielding badges and fire arms. The crew is led by Erik Estrada, who starred as Ponch in the late '70s–early '80s TV series "CHiPs," which followed hunky (for the '70s) California Highway Patrol officers as they tooled around on motorbikes in snug pants.

Estrada talked to us about life in Muncie, LaToya Jackson's aim and what it's like getting tasered.

Seen any real action yet? Every time you put a uniform on, it's dangerous. We had two stings that were very dangerous, and I did have to draw my weapon at one time. We were chasing a career criminal burglar and when we asked him to put his hands outside the vehicle, only one hand came out, and my heart was in my throat because I didn't know what was in the other hand.

Do you think people took you more or less seriously because of your role on "CHiPs"?Most people made it easier for me to arrest them, if I had to, because they practically grew up watching me. It was a blessing in a sense, but at the same time, it was a hindrance. I'm out there and I want to get the job done. So if it's a crime scene, I want to secure the crime scene so it's not trampled on by people asking for autographs.

Do you carry a loaded weapon?Yes. We were trained in firearms and procedure. We're all fully trained and we're all very capable. I don't particularly want to shoot anyone. As long as the gun is not pointed at myself, or at civilians or another officer, my tendency is not to shoot. Instinctually, that's my reaction—not to fire first. That's why we all took a taser shot: so we all can carry a stun gun, which is a good weapon for protection.

Ouch—what did it feel like getting tasered?It blew, big time. It was not fun. Just imagine sticking a fork in an outlet—every muscle contracts, it's just not fun at all. But I think it's a good deterrent for saving lives.

How good of a shot are you? How do you compare to the others?I think Jack is top dog. I think LaToya, surprisingly enough, had never handled a firearm and she qualified well over the number of points that she needed. I've been into shooting sports for the last 15 years—I like to shoot trap, skeet and sporting clays. I was very familiar with it.

You played a cop on "CHiPs," and now you're a cop for real. How different was "CHiPs" from real life?Like day and night. We never drew our guns on "CHiPs." It was more of a show where children were taught lessons of respect for law enforcement. I never had my gun—in six years—in my hand. It's not that way in the real world; there are instances where you might have to draw your weapon, as I did, in a situation.

What about self-defense training?[Laughs] Man, I know points on your face that I could hit with my thumb that will make you cook me a five-course meal.

Did the camera interfere with the business of enforcing the law?At first I was having difficulty, because I'd jump out of a car and I'd have to remember that I also have to explain because the show is about what young officers have to deal with, so we have to set it up for the sole purpose of showing what it really takes. It took me one or two instances to get in the groove—to be a narrator and to perform my duties as an officer.

Do you plan to move to Muncie to keep this career going?[Laughs] I probably will not move to Muncie, but I will definitely be back here. The police officers here have a thing called "Shop with a Cop" every December where they take underserved residents to department stores to shop for them. I'm definitely coming back for that.

Did you have to cut your hair for this?No, you know, that's the good thing. I got to keep my hair. I probably wouldn't have done it if they'd made me shave my head. [Laughs] Actually, I have a lot of fun with my hair—it's one of my icebreakers—everybody thinks I have a toupee and I don't. It's real hair. I just have a very, very loose scalp.

What about the "CHiPs" movie—will you be making a cameo?
I think Wilmer Valderrama is gonna do a fine job as Ponch. I've read the script, I'm not in the script. As far as I'm concerned, it's a win-win for me. I am the original and I'm happy that they're sticking close to what the series was. If they ask me, I hope they make me an offer I can't refuse…and then I hope it's not just me with the thumbs up and my teeth shining. [Laughs]

"Armed & Famous" premieres Wednesday, January 10 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS

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