1974: ''Chico and the Man'' premiered
Everybody knew Jack Albertson. The master of stage and screen had won both a 1965 Tony and a 1968 Oscar for his role in ”The Subject Was Roses” and cemented his reputation with turns in ”Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) and ”The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). Yet it was only a matter of minutes before the veteran found himself upstaged by a virtually unknown 20-year-old named Freddie Prinze when the NBC sitcom ”Chico and the Man” debuted Sept. 13, 1974.
After seeing the half?Puerto Rican, half-Hungarian (Prinze liked to call himself ”Hungarican”) New York City native perform on ”The Tonight Show” in December 1973, exec producer James Komack cast the stand-up comic as Chico, a manic Mexican American who befriends cranky, bigoted garage owner Ed Brown (or ”the man,” to be played by Albertson). From the first episode (and the opening bars of José Feliciano’s theme song), the show was a smash. An average of 40 million people tuned in each week, and, as Prinze’s catchphrase went, all was ”looking good.”
But the laughter Prinze inspired masked a much darker side, as the young comedian struggled with his sudden fame. ”One week he was in the barrio, the next week he was performing for the President,” recalls ”Touched by an Angel”’s Della Reese, who costarred on ”Chico” for two seasons. ”That’s too quick, and you have nothing to balance it out.” Prinze coped by indulging in two dangerous diversions — quaaludes and guns. His life took another grim turn when his wife of over a year, Katherine, filed for divorce in December 1976. Early on the morning of Jan. 28, 1977, facing a charge of driving under the influence, and distraught over upcoming divorce hearings, Prinze put a gun to his head and fired. He died the next day at UCLA Medical Center.
With its star gone, ”Chico and the Man” limped through its fourth and final season — with Gabriel Melgar replacing Prinze as the new ”Chico,” although his 12-year-old character’s name was Raul. ”It was too big a hole to fill,” says Reese. Even with its success, ”Chico” was unable to pry open the door for Latino-centric network programming, with the exception of a few flops such as 1984’s ”a.k.a. Pablo.” (Cable TV, however, has recently taken up the slack, with offerings like Showtime’s ”Resurrection Blvd.” and Nickelodeon’s ”The Brothers Garcia.”)
Prinze’s legacy has been more enduring. Perhaps thanks to ”Chico” reruns currently airing on TV Land, the man Komack once called the ”most gifted entertainer of his time” has won a new generation of fans. In addition, his son, Freddie Jr. — just 10 months old when Sr. died — has kept the Prinze name alive, embarking on a film career his father, tragically, never got the chance to pursue.