Question: I'm not sure if I'm splitting racial hairs here, but I'm just curious. Wasn't Chico, from Chico and the Man, supposed to be a Chicano since the show takes place in L.A.? A friend of mine says he was Puerto Rican. Hector R., San Diego, Cal.
Televisionary: Funny you should ask, Hector, since Chico (the late Freddie Prinze) started the show as one, but ended as the other. A little explanation is in order (and I assume you don't mind why else would you be reading this in the first place?).
When the hit NBC sitcom launched in September 1974, Chico Rodriguez was a Chicano (an American of Mexican descent) who came to work with curmudgeonly garage owner Ed "The Man" Brown (Jack Albertson) and help save his business. The series immediately found a big audience and just as quickly drew fire from prominent members of the Mexican-American community.
For one thing, "Chico" is an insulting term akin to calling an African-American man "boy." Furthermore, stand-up comic Prinze wasn't Chicano he was of Puerto Rican and Hungarian descent and he delivered his lines like a stereotype rather than the high-school graduate his character was supposed to be, according to some critics. Adding insult to injury for others, the show's flamenco-flavored theme song was composed by Puerto Rican musician Jose Feliciano. "Flamenco music is as foreign to the Chicano, or Mexican-American, as bagpipe music," Dr. Rudy Acuna, professor of Chicano studies as California State University at Northridge, complained to TV Guide in 1974.
Worst of all, Albertson's Ed Brown was written as an Archie Bunker-type, given to flinging racist at comments at Chico, like: "Get out of here and take your flies with you." Activists assailed the suits with complaints. Los Angeles Assemblyman Richard Alatorre called Chico and the Man "an affront," faculty members of the Hispanic Urban Center wrote that "the program is a continuation of the racist history of the media" and even Ray Andrade, a Mexican-American associate producer on the show, called the Chico character "cheap, demeaning and offensive."
All of which prompted an effort by NBC and series producers to fix and fix fast. Show creator James Komack (My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie's Father) got together with Andrade and two network execs, spoke to members of the Mexican-American community, yanked some upcoming episodes to touch them up and got rid of many of the ethnic slurs. Mexican-American actor Isaac Ruiz, who lost out to Prinze for the part of Chico, was added to the cast as Chico's pal Mondo. And soon enough, his character asked Chico why he spoke differently and Chico explained he was part Puerto Rican and part Hungarian. Komack stood firm on the theme song, however, and kept the catchy Feliciano tune.
Sadly, problems with the 20-year-old Prinze himself couldn't be taken care of so easily. By the time TV Guide profiled the young actor in 1975, it was already apparent that the sudden fame and fortune were taking their toll on him. "I don't want to become a show-biz bleep and a star, but man, everyone's been hassling me all day," Prinze said to a reporter after a dress rehearsal, trying to explain the stress of it all. "It's everything you want, but too much."
And success had its effects. After his show hit, the same principal who refused to let Prinze graduate from New York's High School of the Performing Arts because he didn't pass economics and told him he'd never amount to anything asked him to perform at the school's 25th-anniversary show. ("How can I?" Prinze responded. "I'm not an alumnus!"). A Playboy Club in Boston had censored Prinze's act in his early days and Hugh Hefner wouldn't get on the phone to explain why, but when Chico took off, the same secretary who stiff-armed Prinze called to invite him to Hef's twice-weekly parties.
But along with the jarring bad-to-good turnarounds came those that went in the other direction. "When Freddie got Chico, a lot of comics who were his friends showed a lot of hostility," friend and fellow comedian Alan Bursky explained. "When Freddie was on his way up, they'd say, 'Man, you're dynamite, we're behind you all the way.' When you're a success the vultures come out. When he first came to town he was a new young comic like me. All of a sudden he's a big star, Vegas and everything and his old friends think he's gone Hollywood. That hurts him.... There was a time when Freddie and I would be going and doing and seeing until 4 am. He doesn't do that anymore he doesn't have time. When he does get out he gets harassed. In a restaurant, people literally pull food out of his mouth to get him to sign autographs."
All the pressure led to the break-up of the young comic's marriage, depression and a reported drug problem. In January 1977, he spent the night calling his estranged wife, friends and associates, then put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger in front of his business manager, killing himself. On a note found in his apartment, he'd written: "I can't take any more. It's all my fault. There is no one to blame but me."
The show continued without Prinze; Raul Garcia was brought in as a 12-year-old foil for the crotchety Man, who adopted him, and Charo provided support as the boy's combative aunt. But the show wasn't the same and the last episode aired in July 1978.