|1976||On Location: Freddie Prinze & Friends|
|1978||The Freddie Prinze Story
by Maria Pruetzel
A puppy-cute, charismatic young stand-up performer, Freddie Prinze was plucked, seemingly overnight, from New York’s comedy clubs to television. His meteoric rise to superstardom via the sitcom “Chico and the Man” ended with a crash that made front page news around the nation.
A self-proclaimed “Hungarican” (Hungarian father, Puerto Rican mother), Freddie tried to work out some of his guilt and confusion through acting. He attended the High School of the Performing Arts and at 17 starring in productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “West Side Story.” Even then he was experimenting with Valium and cocaine. Even then his family had experienced tragedy—his five year-old sister Alice drowned in a swimming pool.
Freddie’s need to be loved and to be famous led to his nickname “The Prince,” and his adopted stage name, which became “Prinze” (“to be unique”). His stand-up comedy was, like that of Bill Dana’s Jose Jimenez, geared to be lovable. The gags about his Puerto Rican lifetylse were delivered with a sugary smile and large moist eyes: “You oughta hear my mother talk about her wedding:‘It was so beautiful, you should have been there.’ I said to her, “Ma, I was!’” His catch phrases were a softly coy “Is not my job,” and a variation on colleague Jimmie Walker’s “Dyn-o-Mite,” a grinning “Lookin’ good!”
Under pressure in the 70’s to give minorities more visibility, talent scouts eagerly booked Walker and Prinze, who guested on Jack Paar’s comeback talk show and then Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” on December 6 1973. Producer James Komack saw him and signed him for “Chico and the Man.” He was a bright new star—but it was the same old story: too much too soon.
Prinze’s own problems with his confused ethnic background were exacerbated by the show’s controversies. Mexicans protested the show, angry at a Puerto Rican playing a Mexican, upset that calling him “Chico” was calling him “boy” in Spanish. They even attacked the un-Mexican theme music of Jose Feliciano. Worse than this was the problem of the superstardom that took Prinze beyond his wildest expectations. He needed more drugs to keep up with it, not less. Even the best parts of stardom eventually proved destructive. Jimmie Walker recalls: “He had too many women. I don’t know how he found the time to sleep with all of them…” He romanced Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty. She loved him but later said, “Comedians aren’t men or women, they’re melancholy children.”
Freddie married the twice-divorced Katherine Cochran in October of 1975, having met her just eight months earlier. Their son was born in March of 1976. His exhausting work schedule and his inner pain continued despite psychiatric counseling. He had taken so much cocaine it had affected his nose. He gobbled handfuls of Quaaludes. His marriage fell apart.
One night, everything fell apart. His therapist had come by at 1:30 am for a talk. His business manager turned up at 3:00 am to further counsel Freddie through this, only one of his many bad nights. Freddie showed his manager the suicide note he’d written: “I must end it. There’s no hope left. I’ll be at peace. No one had anything to do with this. My decision totally. Freddie Prinze.” His manager called up his therapist, who said, “He’s just crying out for attention and help, but I’m not concerned about his doing harm to himself…” After all, Freddie had talked of suicide before, and had even play-acted shooting himself in front of friends.
Freddie called his ex-wife to say good-bye. Just a month earlier, she had filed for divorce. In another month, he was to be in court to answer a charge of driving while under the influence of drugs. He made more calls. Then he grabbed a gun. His manager begged him to put it down and insisted that suicide was not the way out. He even told Freddie that his wife and baby wouldn’t get any insurance money if he went out that way. Freddie seemed to listen. But he had already made the decision. Suddenly he put the gun to his head and fired.
For the next 37 hours, Freddie Prinze lingered in a coma. Then he died.
His friend David Brenner said, “He was so drugged out on ludes and wine he didn’t know what he was doing.” Co-star Jack Albertson eulogized him: “None of us truly realized the extent of his anxieties, perhaps because of his mercurial ability to abandon despondency and soar to self-mocking hilarity. He lived for laughter. I can pay him no more sincere tribute than to admit that he had grown from a new kid in a rehearsal hall into a professional colleague on stage faster, more gracefully, than any actor that I have encountered in nearly half a century of the theater…”
While some stars left behind a legacy of work, Prinze had hardly tapped his full potential. His pain, his confusion, and his gruesome death have overwhelmed what survives—a few seasons of amiable humor on a sitcom, one mild disc of stand-up, and the memory of a nice looking kid with a few jokes and a shy smile.