At 1 p.m. on January 29, 1977, Freddie Prinze, Sr., died at the UCLA Medical Center after suffering a self-inflicted gunshot wound the night before while talking to his manager Marvin “Dusty” Snyder. Prinze was twenty-two years old and left behind grieving parents, siblings, a widow and a son, Freddie, Jr., who would go on to have successful career of his own in Hollywood. Prinze rose to stardom at the age of 19 and in just three years went from aspiring comedian to a star on the comedy circuit and in the hit show Chico and the Man. His time on earth was brief but at the height of his career, it is estimated that his face had been seen by nearly 40 million viewers. I had often heard about Prinze and listened to my parents talk about him in conversations about their favorite shows from the past. I had always wondered what drove him to take his own life? And could it have been prevented? His late mother Maria Pruetzel (1921-2013) tells her story and the story of Freddie’s short but incredible life in this memoir of their time together as mother and son. His father Karl (1914-1979) is also in the story but in a supporting role for reasons Maria explains early in the book.
As I started the book I felt a bond with Maria and Freddie being a native New Yorker myself. No stranger to the area known as Washington Heights where Prinze called home, I have always been aware that Manhattan has been the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest stars. Born on June 22, 1954 to a Hungarian father and Puerto Rican mother, Prinze would characteristically refer to himself as the “Hungarican”. It was just one of his many catchphrases that became his trademarks. Maria takes us back to his early years as a young kid on the streets of Manhattan who has big dreams of making it in show business. The young Freddie we see could easily be one of us, a young teen, dealing with hormones, his peers, girls and his visions of leaving Washington Heights and one day living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He succeeded but as we see in the book, at a price that for many of us is far too high.
Unsurprisingly, the reader is drawn to Freddie who was quite the character even before he became famous. The anecdotes relayed by Maria are nothing short of hilarious and will have readers shaking their heads. As he moves through life and enters the School for Performing Arts, it is here that his life takes unexpected turns and changes forever. Prinze never did finish at the school but as we learn through Maria’s recollections, he was destined to stardom and possessed an uncanny vision that propelled him on to the national scene following a breakout performance on the Johnny Carson Show. But with the fame came the demons which would follow him all the way to the end.
Those who are familiar with the personal lives of Hollywood stars and the industry culture, know of the dark side of tinsel town. As Corey Feldman recalled in his biography Coreyography, you can get any drug you want in Hollywood and there never is a shortage of supply. Prinze was no stranger to them and their effects on his life are heartbreaking. A young man who rose to fame an at incredibly young age with the responsibility of supporting a wife and child, found himself under the grip of narcotics unable to shake their grasp. And that is the true tragedy of his life. At twenty-two, he had many years ahead of him to make millions laugh and enjoy a successful career in the television and film industries. But like many stars, he found a war within himself and struggled with his own feelings and the many stresses that plagued him. And his death occurred far too soon and far too tragically. As his mother explains to us, Freddie’s way is not the way you want to leave here, there are always other options. But beautifully, she also reminds us that Freddie is still here with us every time we watch him again on our television screens.