No one tapes the deliberations in the oval offices of NBC, but obviously some biggie commanded that the network’s new situation comedy Chico and the Man needed a Latino as freewheeling as golfer Lee Trevino with a poquito of the self-conscious social significance of ABC newsman Geraldo Rivera.
What the casting net came up with was a dimpled, 6’2″, 20-year-old street comic from New York City named Freddie Prinze. He calls himself “a Hungarican” (he is half-Hungarian, half-Puerto Rican), but in the series Chico is a Chicano trying to save a foundering garage in the barrio of East Los Angeles. The Man (super pro actor Jack Albertson) is the owner, an irascible but redeemable old racist full of Archie Bunkum, like: “This used to be a nice neighborhood when Mexicans knew their place—Mexico.” Where lines like that will rate on the Nielsen laugh-meter when the show premieres this week is uncertain. But in pretesting—which is more critical in TV decision-making than creative commitment—Chico outranked any previous pilot at NBC in the past five seasons.
For Prinze, who just two years ago made his Broadway debut as usher at the Loews State, landing a series, hit or miss, is “unbelievable, a trip!” He grew up on West 157th Street, where, says Freddie, “you could take drugs and escape into your own little world of euphoria, or you could sell them and make that temporary quick money and the big flashy car and the clothes and the women, or you could find something within yourself.” Freddie’s parents (his dad is a tool-and-die maker, his mom a factory worker) tried to steer him into the arts—piano (“but I couldn’t hack the discipline”) and ballet (“because I was a fat kid”).
Then Freddie found his own bag, comedy. “I had to,” he recalls. “I couldn’t fight, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the academic. So I started doing satiric bits in the school bathroom. Guys would cut class to come and see me.” At 18, Prinze moved downtown to try-out boîtes like The Improvisation that have emerged in an age that has outgrown Ted Mack (other alumni: Bette Midler and Stiller & Meara). Freddie’s material was still way uptown—tenement “supers,” talking cockroaches and junkie kids in the schoolyard (“Can you get me straight, man? I gotta be in kindergarten in five minutes”).
His breakthrough came in 1973 with an appearance on Jack Paar’s show and, with one day’s notice, Johnny Carson’s Tonight. “I flew out to L.A. and did the show after 29 hours without sleep,” Freddie reports. “I was even invited over to sit on the panel, which doesn’t usually happen with new talent. What could I say? ‘No, John, stay cool—I’ll wait my turn like everyone else?’ ” As it happened, Prinze was spotted by TV producer Jimmie (Courtship of Eddie’s Father) Komack, who was working up the Chico concept at the time. Komack, an old comic himself who had grown up three doors from Prinze (years before when the neighborhood was Jewish), considered him “the best young comedian I’ve seen come along in 20 years. Freddie,” Komack observes, “has a brilliant, spooky insight into people’s behavior, a pinpoint iconoclastic view of the world.”
It is a view thus far unmellowed by the perspective from Hollywood. Prinze lives in an unpretentious apartment, drives a 1968 Buick, and once a month without fail returns to his folks and the old neighborhood. His kicks are kung fu lessons and old Marx Brothers movies. His ladies include 18-year-old Kitty Bruce, only daughter of the late Lenny. “Kitty told me,” says Freddie, “that I was the first comic to make her laugh since her father, and that was sweet. But the only comparison that I want to Lenny Bruce is that I’m funny. I’m Freddie Prinze, Puerto Rican all the way. That’s why I would like the series to take. A lot of my old friends have been in and out of jails. They’re stuck on 157th Street. One day I’d like some kid to say, ‘Hey, I could be a dealer or a junkie, but, hey, screw it. Prinze got out…I’ll get out.’ ”