FREDDIE PRINZE: June 22, 1954 – January 29, 1977
Originally published January 29, 2015.
Growing up as a child of the 70s, Freddie Prinze was a mythical figure. Chico and The Man was one of the first television sitcoms I can remember watching, and I remember catching glimpses of Freddie on daytime talk shows like Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. I recall him being charming and funny, but mostly I remember the electric smile that he had. It was a smile he flashed every time he said something funny. It was a bright and excited smile pulled forth with the muscles of the entire face, like the smile of baby. There was nothing coy or smug about it; it was genuine delight at having said something funny. Freddie Prinze may have been “cool” but he wasn’t cool enough to stop himself from laughing at his own jokes. By the time the audience laughed, Freddie was already there ahead of us. And then, one day, he was gone. Nobody shared the details of his suicide with me. In fact, nobody even mentioned that he was dead. “Chico” just left the show (replaced by a child actor and, strangely, Charo) and I wouldn’t think of Freddie Prinze again until the movie Fame mentioned him. I was an adult when I saw a “true Hollywood” special on him and discovered that Freddie was 22 years old when he died. The chock of that compressed timeline led me on a search to track down as much information about the man as I could find. He’d done stand-up all over, he’d hosted The Tonight Show multiple times, he had a hit sitcom, he’d even been a key performer at President Carter’s inaugural ball. He’d signed one of the most lucrative television contracts in history soon after his 22nd birthday. And then he’d shot himself in the head and died. Drugs were partially to blame. Depression, as well. Both had contributed to the fracturing of his marriage, and caused his wife to move away with their newborn son. When I would later start to research Freddie Prinze, I found that almost everything written about him was a “why?” piece. Why did he kill himself? Why would someone with so much success get depressed? Why would someone with such talent abuse drugs? Almost everything written about Freddie Prinze are notes from the aftermath, and an attempt to understand something too personal and too clouded to ever truly understand. What I never found was a search for “how”. How did Freddie Prinze achieve worldwide fame at age 19? There are biographical timelines, sure, but nothing that digs deeply into how Freddie Prinze was so appealing, and what that says – about him and us.