Freddie Prinze (June 22, 1954 – January 29, 1977) was an American actor and stand-up comedian. He was best known as the star of Chico and the Man. He is the father of actor Freddie Prinze, Jr.
Prinze was born Frederick Karl Pruetzel
at St. Clair's Hospital in New York City
, the son of Maria and Karl Pruetzel. His mother was Puerto Rican
, and his father, a Hungarian of Lutheran
. backgrounds, immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1934.
Prinze was raised in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood in Washington Heights, New York City. He began his education at a private Lutheran school, in a religious compromise by his parents (though his mother took him to Catholic mass on Sundays). When Prinze was a small child, his mother enrolled him in ballet classes to deal with his weight problem. Without telling his parents, Prinze successfully auditioned for the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, where he was introduced to drama and continued ballet — and where he discovered his gift for comedy while entertaining crowds in the boys restroom. He dropped out of school in his senior year to become a stand-up comedian.
Prinze worked at several comedy clubs
in New York City
, including The Improv
and Catch a Rising Star
where he introduced himself to audiences as a "Hungarican" (part Hungarian, part Puerto Rican). For the sake of his budding comedic career
, he changed his surname to "Prinze", which he chose because, according to his friend David Brenner
, he originally wanted to be known as the King
of comedy, but Alan King
already had that last name, so he would be the Prince
of comedy instead.
In 1973, he made his first television appearance on one of the last episodes of The Jack Paar Show. In December 1973, his biggest break came with an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Prinze was the first young comedian to be asked to have a sit-down chat with Carson on his first appearance. (Prinze appeared on and guest hosted The Tonight Show on several other occasions). From 1974 to 1977, Prinze starred as Francisco "Chico" Rodriguez in the NBC TV series Chico and the Man with Jack Albertson. The show was an instant hit.
Prinze made several appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, most notably at the roasts for Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali. In 1975, he released a comedy album that was taped live at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago titled Looking Good — his catch phrase from Chico and the Man. In 1976, he starred in a made-for-TV movie, The Million Dollar Rip-Off.
Prinze had a little-known talent for singing, examples of which could be heard in the background of the title song of the Tony Orlando and Dawn album To Be With You, in his appearances on their variety show, and on rare occasions on his own sitcom.
About four months prior to his death, Prinze had signed a multi-year deal with NBC worth $US 6 million dollars over five years. In the months before he died, he had a strong fixation on how John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He also developed an obsession with the film Taxi Driver, viewing it repeatedly.
Upon becoming wealthy, Prinze took martial arts lessons from Robert Wall, a student of Bruce Lee who appeared in Enter the Dragon and Return of the Dragon. Soon after, Wall became godfather to Prinze's newborn son Freddie Prinze, Jr.
Prinze dated actresses Lisa Farringer
and Pam Grier
, among others. He was romantically involved with Kitty Bruce
, daughter of the late Lenny Bruce
, whom Prinze admired. He and Kitty were once reported to be engaged to be married, but the rumor was never substantiated.
He married Katherine Cochran in October 1975, with whom he had one son, future actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. The son's middle name was in honor of James Komack, producer of Chico and the Man. In 1976, after his arrest for driving under the influence of quaaludes, his wife filed for divorce on the grounds that his escalating drug dependence was endangering her and their son.
During the early morning hours of January 28
, after receiving a restraining order
from his ex-wife the previous evening, Prinze, who occasionally told friends that "life isn't worth living", made a series of farewell phone calls to family, friends and management from his hotel room at the Beverly Comstock Hotel
. His business manager, Marvin "Dusty" Snyder, was alarmed after receiving one of the calls and rushed over to Prinze's room. When Snyder arrived, Prinze continued his rueful phone calls, telling his mother "Mom, I love you very much, but I can't go on. I need to find peace." Snyder called Prinze's psychologist
from the next room about what was happening, but the psychologist insisted that Prinze was in no actual danger. Snyder returned to Prinze, who supposedly called his ex-wife and said "I love you, Kathy. I love the baby, but I need to find peace. I can't go on." After the call, Prinze pulled out a gun from the sofa. Snyder tried to intervene, but Prinze shot himself in the head, and was rushed to the UCLA Medical Center
to be placed on life support
following emergency surgery. Prinze's family removed him from life support, and he died at 1:00 pm on January 29
. He was only 22 years of age.
The death, initially ruled a suicide
, was years later re-ruled an "accidental shooting due to the influence of Quaaludes
". His mother, Maria, led the effort to have the cause of death
reworded. Prinze had a history of playing with guns, faking suicide attempts to frighten his friends for his amusement. He had left a note stating that the decision to take his life was his alone, but because he pulled the trigger in the presence of a witness — something suicides rarely do — it gave enough weight to the argument that he really was not planning to take his own life that night.
Prinze's mother wrote a book about her son, The Freddie Prinze Story, which was published in 1978. In September 1979, the TV movie Can You Hear the Laughter? The Story of Freddie Prinze premiered.
In 2001, TV Land began showing reruns of Chico and the Man.