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COVER STORY:
Freddie Prinze, Jr.

Taking Back His Father’s Name
By Eric Deggans

The son of legendary comedian Freddie Prinze acknowledges that a career filled with roles in white-bread fare has hardly prepared Hollywood for a simple fact: the former teen idol not only acknowledges his Hispanic heritage; he embraces it.

Even after the journalist repeated his question, Freddie Prinze, Jr. wasn’t sure he’d heard right. Did this guy just ask him how it felt to be playing a Puerto Rican on TV?

“I said, ‘Excuse me brother, but I am Puerto Rican,’ ” said Prinze, still amused by the thought of a thirtysomething entertainment journalist who had never heard of his famous father. “He’s (insisting), ‘No, you’re a white guy!’ So I go, ‘You know what, I’m going to hang up the phone and let you do some research,’ and I did. I couldn’t even talk to him.”

As Prinze recounts the story, sitting in the production office of his new, self-titled ABC sitcom, he’s got little sympathy for a reporter who obviously never heard of his dad’s hit ’70s sitcom Chico and the Man, or missed long-ago footage of his papa’s sizzling standup comedy act. But he also acknowledges that a career filled with roles in white-bread fare such as the teen-friendly films I Know What You Did Last Summer, She’s All That and Scooby Doo has hardly prepared Hollywood for a simple fact: The younger Prinze not only acknowledges his Hispanic heritage; he embraces it. And he’s finally found a way to bring that history to the wider world in a way that may redefine the Prinze name for a generation of TV viewers. The show is called Freddie, and it’s a situation comedy starring Prinze as a successful chef who takes his grandmother, sister, niece and sister-in-law into his home when each falls on hard times. But even though the names and some details have been changed, Freddie is really a thinly veiled version of Prinze’s own life.

“When I started to have a little bit of success, my family fell on hard times, so they all came in to live with me,” he says. “It was four of them and one of me; it was a four-bedroom house—so I didn’t even have a bedroom. I worked real hard to get everybody straight. And then when they left, they took my furniture! I figured if that made me laugh, it might make other people laugh, too.”

Raised by his mother and a houseful of women after his father committed suicide in 1977, Prinze shuttled between New Mexico and Puerto Rico, learning Spanish and Puerto Rican culture at the feet of his paternal grandmother and his father’s family. Now serving as executive producer and writer on Freddie—unofficially, Prinze guestimates he’s both the youngest executive producer at the network and the first actor to nab such a powerful title in his first shot at a series—the 29-year-old former teen idol has crafted a family-friendly comedy that captures the unique cultural balancing act he’s negotiated his entire life.

“I remember when I was a kid, parents wouldn’t let me take their daughter out because when they looked at me, they saw my dad,” says Prinze, who was just Prinze receiving a star in the Walk of Fame10 months old when his father put a gun to his temple and shot himself after a long struggle with depression and drugs. “They saw the way he died and made their decision as to how I’d end up,” he adds. “It puts a lot of pressure on me to clean up my pop’s name. Every decision I’ve made was to make sure our name would be comfortable with families. And by the way, I’ve been criticized for these decisions without anyone ever asking me why I chose the roles I chose. That always made me laugh, because nobody ever had any idea.”

Indeed, the half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican chef he plays in Freddie may be Prinze’s first major role as a Hispanic—a circumstance the actor says was a deliberate choice.

“Lou Gossett, Jr. had this quote years and years ago … talking about An Officer and a Gentleman. He told his agent he would not read for an African American role—he only wanted to read for the roles the white actors were going up for,” says Prinze, noting how Gossett nailed the drill sergeant’s role that would later earn him an Academy Award.

“I took the same strategy,” he adds. “When I moved out here and people saw my name … I had a shaved head, dark skin and a tattoo. … You would be shocked at the stuff they offered me. I was the gangbanger and the drug dealer and the thug. And that’s all a Spanish or a black guy could get in this business. I decided I would not read for a role unless the character’s name was Ryan or Bryan or Chad. And I think I got two Ryans in my career, which is pretty good.” But audiences used to seeing Prinze as blond ghostbuster Fred from the Scooby Doo movies or as high school hunk Zach Siler in She’s All That, may not accept him as a brash, ethnic cook with a live-in grandmother who never speaks English (viewers will see subtitles translating her Spanish lines).

“The fact that Freddie was willing to make this about his Puerto Rican heritage is huge,” says executive producer Bruce Helford, who also produces ABC’s only other comedy starring a Hispanic male, The George López Show. “The original intent was to make sure this is an American family … we didn’t want to exclude anybody or make some kind of universal Latino experience, which doesn’t exist anyway. Once the audience is comfortable with the family, you can bring everything else in. And because of George’s success, there was never any question about whether it would appeal to an American audience.”

And while network TV seems a little more willing to feature Hispanics in key roles this season, Prinze credits one guy with helping him get to ABC. López, whose manager once guided the elder’s Prinze’s career as well, encouraged the young actor to try developing his sitcom and gave his blessing to a plan whereby Helford would work on both George López and Freddie.

“After George, there were a flurry of shows featuring Hispanics … and by coincidence, they are now the No. 1 minority in the United States,” says Helford, who insisted ABC make a serious effort to air López before he would commit to developing the show. “Now that George has stuck—and that’s huge—for everybody else, it now makes sense to take a risk.”

Even in the pilot episode, Freddie manages a few nods to Prinze’s personal heritage, featuring his on-screen grandmother nailing an “evil eater” totem to the walls of his apartment—using a replica of an item the actor was given by his own grandmother.

And while some may balk at the inclusion of a character who never speaks English, for Prinze it was just another inspired-by-true-life element that made his show resonate with the reality of his family.

Freddie Prinze, Jr. with his wife, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar“My grandmother [once said], when you’re in France, you speak French, when you're in America, you speak English, but when you speak to God, you speak Spanish,” the actor says, laughing. “With Mexicans and Puerto Ricans—you speak Spanish in the house, and that’s it. So (the character) never will speak English. If we got seven years and it’s the final episode, you’re not gonna hear her say, ‘Well, I love you.’ Because it’s all gotta be real.”

Such cultural nuances are a long way from the days when Freddie Prinze, Sr. was making his way through show business, working the comedy clubs first in his native New York City and later in Los Angeles. Born the son of a Hungarian Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother—the elder Prinze liked to call himself a “Hunga-rican—the comic scored big on NBC’s legendary Tonight Show and later became the first Hispanic since Desi Arnaz to star in his own TV comedy with the 1974 debut of Chico and the Man.

Though he would be dead three years later at age 22, the groundbreaking comic’s work was enough to inspire a legion of successors, including John Leguizamo and George López—both of whom have paid tribute to the elder Prinze in stage performances. The younger Prinze has vowed to learn from his father’s mistakes, building a movie career on mainstream roles and cultivating a private, stable home life with his wife, former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar.

So, as the curtain rises on his own, self-titled sitcom, does Freddie Prinze, Jr. feel he’s finally outpaced his father’s shadow?

“I figured once I reached my 23rd birthday, I was there,” noted the younger Prinze, who says he still visits his father’s grave at Forest Lawn cemetery in the Hollywood Hills every time he gets a new job. “I want people to remember that he was funny, he was talented, he was an artist and he was so much more than his death. That’s why you don’t see me out partying and taking drugs and cheating on the woman I love. It’s important to me that people see the other side of it … and I’ve done everything in my current power to make that happen.”

For Prinze, the success of his new sitcom is about more than building a career in television. It’s about the final redemption of a name some have come to associate mostly with the tragedy of a young talent unfulfilled.

“We’ll see real quick if families are comfortable with me being in their house once a week sitting on a couch for 22 minutes,” the actor says. “If they are, then we’ll be a hit. If they’re not, we’ll be gone before you can snap your fingers.” H

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