Today is the birthday of Freddie Prinze (Frederick Pruetzel, 1954-1977). I can think of few events in the annals of show business sadder than Prinze’s sudden suicide at age 22. Drugs and depression and divorce are explanations; they don’t make it any less bewildering. He was so young at the time — apparently too young to know or care that things would almost surely get better for a good looking, wealthy, groundbreaking, idolized comedy star. I was about 11 or 12 when that happened. It didn’t — still doesn’t – -make any sense.
Chico and the Man was one of the top tv shows of its day (1974-1977). When it came out, it was the latest in the long line of high concept controversial “issues” sitcoms of the day: All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, etc etc. The bigot in this case was “the Man” Ed Brown, played by Jack Albertson, a mean and bitter old man who owns a car repair garage, and keeps shots of whiskey at the ready in his cash register.
Brown has a problem with Mexicans, including his young assistant Chico (Prinze — despite the fact that Prinze was one half Hungarian and one half Puerto Rican, or as he called it in his comedy routines, “Hungarican”). The show was hastily devised as a vehicle for Prinze, who had just exploded as one of the top stand-up comedians in the country through successful appearances on The Tonight Show and other programs.
Freddie Prinze was a major star. Not just because of the catchphrases (“Looking Good!”) but he was also a good dramatic actor, and he enormous sex appeal. A disco ‘stache and dimples in the mid ’70s? C’mon! Even if he wasn’t funny he would have had it made. But he was funny. In fact, he guest hosted The Tonight Show several times, appeared on variety shows like Tony Orlando and Dawn, and performed at Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, holding his own with comedy veterans much older and more experienced than he. Not to mention holding his own with Albertson on Chico, a serious veteran himself.
Prinze was well on the way to greater things. In 1976 had just signed a multi-million dollar five-year contract with NBC, and starred in the tv movie The Million Dollar Rip-Off, portending a future movie career. But his wife divorced him, he became despondent, and blew his brains out with a handgun. In doing so, he robbed us of much. But we still have his performances to enjoy and they hold up, allowing us to think about what was, and what might have been.
And now I have the theme song to Chico and the Man, by Jose Feliciano, stuck in my head. Arrgh!