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The Lost Prinze of Comedy

The tormented soul of Freddie Prinze -- We look back at the career of this successful, yet tortured, artist

New York-born funnyman Freddie Prinze, 22, the half-Puerto Rican costar of TV's Chico and the Man who embodied the cheeky ebullience of youth, sat on his couch in Los Angeles, scribbled January 28, 1977. I must end it..., made a few calls, and then put a .38 caliber bullet through his amazingly creative brain.

Few entertainers came farther faster or fell more tragically than Freddie Prinze. In 1972, at 17, he got his first small break on Broadway as a $2-an-hour usher at a movie theater, which fired him for polishing his comedy act on company time; that year he also lost a girlfriend and made his first suicide attempt. His 1973 Tonight Show debut was so stellar that Johnny Carson, in a rare move, invited the unknown over to the couch to chat. In 1974, he got Chico and stole the show from old-pro costar Jack Albertson. By 22 Prinze was cracking up Jimmy Carter at his inaugural gala, and doing 70 through school zones in his Corvette Stingray.

With its catchphrase, ''Ees not my job!'' Prinze's act provoked Hispanic protests yet broke ground for Hispanic actors. The instant fame seemed to break his spirit. ''His judgment was impaired by his age, drugs, and the incredible success,'' says Peter Greenberg, producer of the TV bio Can You Hear the Laughter?: The Story of Freddie Prinze. A heavy cocaine user by 16, he became a five-gram-a-day addict and bought Quaaludes by the hundreds. He'd charm cops out of giving him speeding tickets and drunkenly weave his way home. He obsessively reran the Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination, and played Russian roulette in front of horrified friends. Once he clicked a gun at his head, then pointed it outside, pulled the trigger again, and was knocked backwards by the blast.

When he finally did kill himself, Prinze had blown his fortune yet had signed contracts worth more than $7 million with NBC and Caesar's Palace. ''He never got a chance to think,'' says Greenberg. ''He was moving too fast.'' He was enormously depressed by his impending divorce from former cocktail waitress Kathy Cochran Prinze, 26, and his possible separation from his 10-month-old son.

Now that son, Freddie Prinze Jr., 18, is about to make his network acting debut in an antigun episode of ABC's Family Matters, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 10. ''If people would only think of his gift instead of his death, I would love it,'' Freddie Jr. says. ''I have this album of his stand-up,Lookin' Good, and no matter how upset I was, anytime, ever, the second I played it he could make me laugh. He was so sharp and spontaneous, so fast!''


TIME CAPSULE

Jan. 28, 1997
A newcomer named Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped us up in Pumping Iron, Leon Uris' Trinity was No.1 on the fiction chart, Alex Haley's Roots was triumphant in bookstores and TV, and Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" was top tune.

Originally posted Jan 27, 1995 Published in issue #259 Jan 27, 1995 Order article reprints
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