Born in New York City in 1954, actor and comedian Freddie Prinze achieved early fame as a 19-year-old comic when he performed his stand-up on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1974 he became a star as Francisco "Chico" Rodriguez on the hit sitcom Chico and the Man. Plagued by personal demons and unrelenting addictions, Prinze took his life on January 29, 1977.
Actor and comedian Frederick Karl Pruetzel was born June 22, 1954, in New York City. Freddie later changed his last name to Prinze in large part, according to his close friend David Brenner, because he wanted to be known as the "Prince" of comedy.
While Prinze largely identified with his mother's Puerto Rican roots, he came from a multicultural home. His father, Karl, was of Hungarian Jewish decent.
Shy and somewhat chubby as a young boy, Prinze showed an early affinity for the arts. His mother enrolled him in ballet lessons to help him lose weight, and later he taught himself guitar and drums. At Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Prinze discovered his passion for the stage. He performed in dramas and continued his ballet work. Comedy was another of his talents, and in between classes he entertained friends with improvised stand-up routines in the boys bathroom.
Meteoric Rise to Comedy Fame
Prinze's love for stand-up, and his gift for it, eventually led him to drop out of high school his senior year to pursue it full-time. At the dawn of an explosive new era in stand-up comedy, Prinze performed in clubs across New York City, from Catch a Rising Star to the Improv.
Seemingly overnight, Prinze's career mushroomed. One moment he was a struggling comic making ends meet by working as a movie theater usher, the next he was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he did so well the show's host asked the young comedian to sit on the couch to chat.
A year later, in 1974, Prinze became a regular on television, starring as Francisco "Chico" Rodriguez in the NBC comedy Chico and the Man with Jack Albertson. Identified with Prinze's familiar line, "Ees not my job!" the sitcom catapulted Prinze into a full-fledged star. Over the next few years he made several appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and starred in the made-for-TV movie, The Million Dollar Rip-Off (1976).
In 1975 he released a full-length comedy album, Loooking Good, which was taped live in Chicago.
In October 1975 Prinze married Katherine Cochran, a cocktail waitress he'd met at a resort in Colorado. The couple had one son together, Freddie James Prinze (born March 9, 1976). The younger Prinze is now a successful film actor who has starred in several films, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, She's All That, and Scooby-Doo, among others.
Tragic Demise and Suicide
Prinze's career success amplified the demons that seemed to have always plagued him. By the age of 16 he was regular user of cocaine, and with the money and fame, and the pressure he put on himself to succeed, his dependencies only deepened.
“His judgment was impaired by his age, drugs, and the incredible success,” Peter Greenberg, producer of the TV bio Can You Hear the Laughter?: The Story of Freddie Prinze, has said.
In 1976 Prinze was arrested for DUI for being under the influence of Quaaludes. Shortly thereafter, citing her husband's increasing dependence on drugs, Kathy moved to divorce him. This development only drove the entertainer further into a downward spiral.
It all came to end on January 29, 1977, when the 22-year-old Prinze sat on his couch in his Los Angeles home, scribbled out the words, "I must end it" on a scrap of paper and then shot himself in the head.
Prinze's death came at a time when his career showed no signs of slowing down. Weeks before his suicide, he signed a multiyear $1 million contract with Las Vegas's Caesars Palace, while film deals were also in the works with Warner Brothers and Universal. He had even filled in as host for Carson on the Tonight Show.
His death continues to be shrouded in mystery. Some, citing his frequent playing with guns and his altered mental state, wonder if he truly intended to kill himself at all. Many others wonder what would have become of the man widely considered to be the comic of his generation.
"Freddie will always be 21 to me," recalled Jay Leno, who once crashed in Prinze's apartment when the two were both struggling to make it in the stand-up world. "He never got to be an adult. He was like a classmate who got shot in 'Nam. It was just Freddie going 100 mph."
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