THE BOOTLEG FILES: CHICO AND THE MAN

BOOTLEG FILES 556: “Chico and the Man” (1974-78 NBC sitcom starring Jack Albertson and Freddie Prinze).

LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of episodes can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A DVD with six episodes was released in 2005.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It may be out of circulation due to the lingering unease over the suicide of Freddie Prinze.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, that would be wonderful!

During the 1970s, the presence of Latino performers on U.S. television was something of an elusive commodity. Tony Orlando had a variety show, but he seemed to go out of his way to de-emphasize his Puerto Rican heritage on that program. Ricardo Montalban did multiple guest appearances on episodic series before he gained small screen immortality as the star of “Fantasy Island,” albeit as the decidedly non-ethnic Mr. Roarke. Rita Moreno was a jolly presence on “The Electric Company,” though it was admittedly something of a professional demotion from being an Academy Award-winning actress to a member of the ensemble of a daytime children’s program. Hector Elizondo and Edith Diaz had an 11-episode run in the 1976 sitcom “Popi” while Jose Perez endured for 24 episodes in the weird prison-based comedy “On the Rocks.”  And vibrant performers such as Chita Rivera, Vikki Carr and Freddie Fender would occasionally turn up in fleeting guest appearances on variety programming – but no one thought of keeping them front and center with their own programming.

But there was one Latino star in the 1970s who not only managed to gain a major starring position in the entertainment world, but who also made a career out of emphasizing his heritage: Freddie Prinze, whose meteoric rise was one of the most astonishing career ascendancies of that decade. Today, Prinze is mostly remembered as the father of that less-than-stellar screen presence, Freddie Prinze Jr. – sadly, his most satisfying professional achievement, the sitcom “Chico and the Man,” has been out of circulation for too many years.

Born Frederick Karl Pruetzel in New York City in 1954, the son of a Hungarian father and Puerto Rican mother, Freddie Prinze dropped out of high school in his senior year to pursue work as a stand-up comedian. His act offered observational joking of what many Anglos perceived to be Latino stereotypes – and at a time when Latino stand-up comics were few and far between, the handsome, buoyant and intentionally ethnic young Prinze stood out from the other funnymen.

Success came to Prinze with extraordinary speed. By 1973, he was appearing on “The Tonight Show” and had caught the attention of NBC’s talent scouts. Prinze turned up in high-profile guest shots on “The Midnight Special” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” before getting his own show with “Chico and the Man.”

Actually, “Chico and the Man” was not just a crowning achievement in Prinze’s career, but it also capped the career of Jack Albertson, a veteran character actor who spent decades in pursuit of a defining starring role.

By the time “Chico and the Man” premiered in 1974, Albertson had been in show business for nearly a half-century. Initially working as a dancer in vaudeville, he worked his way into burlesque before finding a foothold in radio and on Broadway; by the 1950s, he was firmly entrenched in Hollywood, working regularly on film and television. But stardom eluded him, and his roles were mostly in forgettable supporting parts that, quite frankly, any actor could have played.

Albertson’s luck finally began to change in 1964 when he was cast in the Broadway drama “The Subject Was Roses.” His performance as the ill-tempered patriarch of a dysfunctional Bronx family earned him a Tony Award, and he had the good fortune to repeat the role for the 1968 film version, for which he was the surprise winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Albertson later acknowledged that he expected young Jack Wild to win the prize for “Oliver!” – and not to be sour, but Wild deserved the award for his astonishing performance.) But winning the Oscar did not guarantee him starring roles – although memorably cast as the jolly grandfather in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and as Shelley Winters’ beleaguered husband in “The Poseidon Adventure,” Albertson still could not break into a starring part in Hollywood. He finally secured his long-overdue leading role in the 1972 Broadway production of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” for which he got a Tony Award nomination – but when the film version was produced, Albertson was ignored and his role went to Walter Matthau.  (I saw Albertson on stage in “The Sunshine Boys” when I was a kid and I can still recall his brilliantly funny performance, which was infinitely superior to Matthau’s dreary and hammy film work.) In 1974, Hollywood finally granted the 67-year-old Albertson with a starring role in “Chico and the Man.”

For its time, “Chico and the Man” broke new ground with its culture clash between the two main characters. Albertson’s Ed Brown was initially a rude and tactless racist who could not respect the diversity in the changing demographics of his East Los Angeles neighborhood. Albertson’s character operated a ramshackle garage, and the series opened with the character as the sole employee. Prinze’s Chico Rodriguez was the polar opposite of Ed Brown: a young, sunny, good-natured Chicano who would not be baited by Ed’s nasty comments. While Prinze originally gave Chico a comically heavy Chicano dialect, he also ensured the character spoke perfect English. (The bogus dialect would later be dropped in favor of Prinze’s natural speaking voice, only to be resurrected for laugh-generating catch phrases like “Looooookin’ gooooood!” and “Ees no my yob!”)

In the first episode, Chico talked his way into a job at the garage. He would take up residence in a van in garage and would become an unofficial partner in Ed’s work and life. Many of the episodes involved Chico trying to straighten out Ed’s bad behavior and shaky business skills, and on more than a few occasions Ed would jump to ridiculous conclusions regarding his misinterpretation of Chico’s actions.

To its credit, “Chico and the Man” surrounded its stars with supporting actors that offered their own glow without distracting from the central players: Scatman Crothers as an ebullient garbage collector, Ronnie Graham as a put-upon reverend and Della Reese as the garage’s sassy landlady. And not unlike many sitcoms of the era, there was a parade of scene-stealing guest stars, including George Takei as a man who believed Albertson was his long-lost father, Jose Feliciano (who wrote and performed the show’s bouncy theme song) as Chico’s cousin, the sublime Avery Schreiber as a gregarious Gypsy fortune teller and Sammy Davis Jr. as (what else?) Sammy Davis Jr.

Of course, this was all Sitcom 101, and there was never truly a classic episode that stood out as being among the most satisfying in 1970s sitcom history. But the unusually strong chemistry between Albertson and Prinze sold the series. Albertson, dressed in a shabby sweater and battered hat, came across as a rough and crotchety curmudgeon – he was not as vituperative as Archie Bunker, but he had enough vinegar to guarantee a comically warped consideration of his changing world. Prinze, in comparison, was fast-talking and energetic, with nary a mean though in his mind. These opposites attracted and result was pure delight. Indeed, this was one of my favorite programs during my childhood.

“Chico and the Man” debuted in the top ten on NBC in 1974 and remained a popular favorite for two more seasons. By 1976, NBC began to position Prinze for bigger and better things. He was cast in his first film role as an electronics genius that engineers a payroll heist in a 1976 made-for-TV drama called “The Million Dollar Rip-Off” – it was an off-beat endeavor that proved Prinze possessed enough versatility to move into more challenging parts. That year, the network rewrote his contract by offering a six-year deal worth $5 million. Prinze also began to drop hints in the media that he was eager to team with Tony Orlando for possible movie comedy roles – Orlando guest starred in one of the more amusing episodes of “Chico and the Man” and Prinze returned the favor by appearing on Orlando’s variety show in a pricelessly funny episode that showed the men had a hitherto untapped talent for slapstick farce.

For anyone viewing Prinze’s career from afar, it seemed that he had the most amazing future ahead of him. But as his star began to ascend, Prinze’s life began to fray. A highly embarrassing November 1976 arrest for driving while drugged out on Quaaludes offered the first public hint that something was seriously wrong. Prinze’s year-old marriage then fell apart, as his wife cited his drug usage as her main grounds for her leaving him. Untreated depression only fueled Prinze’s private anguish. On January 28, 1977, several hours after completing work on a “Chico and the Man” episode, Prinze shot himself in the head. He died the next day, and was only 22 years old.

Prinze’s death occurred before the third season of “Chico and the Man” was completed. Rather than cut the season short, several episodes were quickly rewritten without Chico’s presence – his absence was barely acknowledged by the other characters. One might have assumed that the show would have been withdrawn, but it was decided to push ahead with a fourth season. A new teenage character named Raul Garcia (played by 13-year-old Mexican-born Gabriel Melgar) was introduced to replace Prinze. But the writing became increasingly maudlin, with Ed becoming an old softie that was eager to adopt spunky young Raul. Chico’s disappearance was the subject of shifting explanations (it was initially stated that he was visiting his father in Mexico, but then it was blurted out that he died). In an attempt to oomph up the proceedings, the vivacious Spanish singer Charo was recruited to play Raul’s sexy aunt. But Melgar was charmless as a replacement for Prinze and audiences were uncomfortable with this new set-up. The show plummeted in the ratings and “Chico and the Man” was cancelled after its fourth season.

Unlike other 1970s sitcoms that became standards in syndicated reruns, “Chico and the Man” all but disappeared. It played briefly on rerun-heavy networks TV Land and ION Television, but it never became a staple of either channel. In 2005, six episodes were culled for a DVD release by Warner Bros., but that offering has been out of print for years. No plans have been made to repackage the entire series for a DVD release, even though there doesn’t appear to be any underlying rights issues holding up such a release.

Why has “Chico and the Man” vanished? It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or acting. From bits and pieces of the show that can be seen in unauthorized postings on YouTube, the show remains fresh and funny – or at least the Prinze episodes continue to shine, as the regrettable fourth season is almost unwatchable. And I can’t detect any issue with any underlying rights to the program. Perhaps there is the lingering discomfort surrounding Prinze’s death — admittedly, it is difficult to lose yourself in the funny episodes without recalling the tragedy of the comic’s violent self-inflicted death.

Still, “Chico and the Man” deserves to be seen again. I sincerely hope that Warner Bros. will bring the show back with a DVD release of the three seasons where Prinze reigned brilliantly. This is one show that does not deserve to be lost to obscurity.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

One response to “THE BOOTLEG FILES: CHICO AND THE MAN

  1. Albertson also had a minor role which provided a major plot development in the original MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. He plays the postal worker who gets the idea of sending all the children’s letters to Kris Kringle, thus keeping the jovial Santa from getting locked up in a mental institution.

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