Prinze, Freddie (1954-1977)

views updated

Prinze, Freddie (1954-1977)

Comedian Freddie Prinze is one of only a handful of Hispanic Americans to earn national prominence as a popular entertainer. Prinze was born in Washington Heights, New York, a multi-ethnic neighborhood on the Upper West Side. His father was a Hungarian immigrant who worked as a tool-and-die maker; his mother was a Puerto Rican immigrant who worked in a factory. Playing on the name "Neuorican," which is how many Puerto Ricans living in New York identify themselves, Prinze called himself a "Hungarican."

Prinze not only came from a diverse ethnic background, but a diverse religious one as well. His father was part Jewish and his mother was Catholic, but they chose to send him to a Lutheran elementary school. On Sundays he attended Catholic mass. "All was confusing," he told Rolling Stone in 1975, "until I found I could crack up the priest doing Martin Luther." Prinze was also overweight when he was a young boy, which further heightened his anxiety about his "mixed" identity. "I fitted in nowhere," he continued, "I wasn't true spic, true Jew, true anything. I was a miserable fat schmuck kid with glasses and asthma." Like many comedians, Prinze used humor to cope with the traumas of his childhood. "I started doing half-hour routines in the boys room, just winging it. Guys cut class to catch the act. It was, 'What time's Freddie playing the toilet today?"' His comedic talents paid off, as he was selected to attend the prestigious Performing Arts High School in New York.

Prinze did not graduate from the Performing Arts High School, although after his professional successes school administrators awarded him a certificate. The young comedian skipped many of his morning classes, most commonly economics, because he often worked as late as 3:00 A.M. in comedy clubs perfecting his comedy routine. One of his favorite spots was the Improvisation on West 44th Street, a place where aspiring comics could try out their material on receptive audiences.

Prinze called himself an "observation comic," and his routines often included impressions of ethnic minorities and film stars such as Marlon Brando. One of his most famous impressions was of his Puerto Rican apartment building superintendent who, when asked to fix a problem in the building, would say with a thick accent: "Eez not mai yob." The line became a national catch phrase in the early 1970s. His comedy also had a political edge that was poignant and raw. This is perhaps best illustrated by his line about Christopher Columbus: "Queen Isabelle gives him all the money, three boats, and he's wearing a red suit, a big hat, and a feather—that's a pimp." Prinze's comic wit, based in the tradition of street humor pioneered by such comics as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, landed him a number of television appearances, including The Tonight Show in 1973.

Prinze's performance on The Tonight Show was a major success, and signalled the start of his television career. Indeed, Jimmie Komack, a television producer, liked what he saw in Prinze's routine and cast him to play the part of Chico Rodriquez, a wisecracking Chicano, in a situation comedy called Chico and the Man (1974-1978). The series also starred veteran actor Jack Albertson, who played "the Man," a crusty old-timer who owned a run-down garage in a Chicano barrio of East Los Angeles. In the tradition of situation comedies like All in the Family and Sanford and Son, most of the plots involved ethnic conflicts between Chico, who worked in the garage, and the Man, who was the only Caucasian living in the mostly Latino neighborhood. "Latin music sounds like Montovani getting mugged," the Man says to Chico in one episode. Chico would often respond to the old-timer's bigoted statements with the line, "Looking good," which also became a national catch phrase.

Chico and the Man faced criticism from the Los Angeles Chicano community, who protested the use of Prinze, a New York Puerto Rican, to play a Los Angeles Chicano. Citing dialect and accent differences—and the fact that network television rarely employed Chicano actors—Chicano groups picketed NBC's Burbank studios. Prinze responded with his usual irreverent humor: "If I can't play a Chicano because I'm Puerto Rican, then God's really gonna be mad when he finds out Charlton Heston played Moses." Fearful of the bad publicity, the network and producers of the show changed the character of Chico into a half-Puerto Rican and half-Chicano who was brought up in New York City. The shift in the character's ethnic identity apparently did not bother the audiences, as Chico and the Man never slipped below sixth place in the Nielsen ratings when Prinze was its star.

Prinze had a difficult time adjusting to his success. Indeed, friends reported that the comic turned to drugs to cope with the pressures of fame. "Freddie was into a lot of drugs," comedian Jimmy Walker told the New York Times, "not heroin, as far as I know, but coke and a lot of Ludes. The drug thing was a big part of Freddie's life. It completely messed him up." During this period, he also experienced many personal problems. His wife of 15 months, Katherine Elaine Cochran, filed for divorce. They had a ten-month-old son, whom Prinze adored. He was also engaged in a lawsuit with one of his business associates. The totality of these events depressed the young comic.

On January 28, 1977, after a night of phone calls to his secretary, psychiatrist, mother, and estranged wife, Prinze shot himself in the head in front of his business manager. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was twenty-two years old. A note found in his apartment read: "I can't take any more. It's all my fault. There is no one to blame but me." According to the New York Times, Prinze had previously threatened suicide in front of many of his friends and associates, often by holding a gun to his head and pulling the trigger while the safety was on. It is not known whether the young comedian actually intended to kill himself that night or just allude to killing himself as he had done in the past, but it is clear that he was extremely depressed.

The death of Freddie Prinze is an American success story turned tragedy. His streetwise insight and raw wit are surely missed, perhaps most by the Puerto Rican-American community who have yet to see another politically minded Puerto Rican comedian grab national attention. "I am ee-noyed there is no Puerto Rican astronaut," Prinze told Rolling Stone in an exaggerated Spanish accent, "thee bigots think we will blow thee horn all the way to thee moon, play thee radio, stick our heads out thee window and whistle … and then, on thee moon, the white astronaut says, 'Bring in the Rocks now,' and we reply, 'Eez not mai yob, man!"'

—Daniel Bernardi

Further Reading:

Burke, Tom. "The Undiluted South Bronx Truth about Freddie Prinze." Rolling Stone. 30 January 1975, 38-43.

Edelman, Rosemary. "'Pobrito,' It Ain't Easy Being a Star." TV Guide. 15 February 1975, 20-22.

Kasindorf, Jeanie. "'If I Was Bitter, I Wouldn't Have Chosen Comedy."' New York Times. 9 February 1975, D27.

Nordheimer, Jon. "Freddie Prinze, 22, Dies after Shooting." New York Times. 30 January 1977, 19.

Pruetzel, Maria, The Freddie Prinze Story. Kalamazoo, Michigan, Master's Press, 1978.

Seiler, Michael. "Freddie Prinze: He Didn't Believe in Himself: Friends Reflect on Comedian's Childhood, Sudden Rise to Success and His Death." New York Times. 1 March 1977, C1.