The Undiluted South Bronx Truth About Freddie Prinze - Rolling Stone
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The Undiluted South Bronx Truth About Freddie Prinze

The comedian and ‘Chico and the Man’ star on overnight success and skirting the lines of Uncle Tom humor

Actor, Freddie Prinze, TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSONActor, Freddie Prinze, TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON

Actor Freddie Prinze on the TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON on May 21st, 1974.

Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

There is a dearth of incensed Chicanos in Philadelphia, and so beneath the Governor’s Suite of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, there are no pickets protesting the ethnic unconsciousness of Chico and the Man, only a tangle of adolescents with troubled skins sulking under Cover Girl, television viewers of various races and sexes frozen to the pavement beside the always attending limousine, waiting to glimpse the Governor’s Suite occupant, whom they refer to never as Freddie, always as Chico. In Hollywood, where the series is assembled, the waiting crowds have been sullen, comprised as they’ve been of representatives from the Model Cities Center for Law and Justice, the faculty of the Hispanic Urban Center, every ethnic-minority actor who wasn’t currently working (because of TV’s burgeoning ethnicity, most were), and even, incredibly, Chico’s associate producer, who is a Chicano and actually told a reporter that his new effort was “cheap, demeaning and offensive” to all Americans of Mexican descent. Of course the publicity gleaned by the enraged outside NBC, Burbank, didn’t hurt the new series’s spectacular Nielsens; neither did the press coverage of the hurried rewrite conferences, the apologetic deletions from Chico scripts of lines for Jack Albertson, the “Man,” such as “Get out of here and take your flies with you,” or “This was a good neighborhood when the Mexicans knew their place – Mexico.”

But the fans at the West Coast studio gates remain suspicious, while in Philadelphia, where Freddie Prinze has come to cohost the Mike Douglas Show, they are ecstatic just to touch Chico’s limousine, though they wait for its passenger in vain, in rain. When Freddie exits now into public streets, his black eyes hooded, his moustache a parabola, he uses side entrances; he is, after all, even more, now, than that phenomenon undreamed of through all the cultures until ours, an entertainer who materializes weekly in 50 million living rooms; he is media’s newest heroic synthesization, the macho-ghetto avatar, the iconoclastic, theomorphic super-spic, and he could spend all day signing autographs and losing bits of his clothing. As distasteful to him as the madding fan-club crowd is the press, which can be even more abrasive, to which one may lose bits of one’s charisma, so writers must wait like the pimply fans. “The problem is, there’s been so much press. How much time’s he gotta give you, an hour or something? Freddie doesn’t like interviews. Freddie just doesn’t wanta bother anymore, unless it’s the cover of Newsweek.” The Chico producer, Jimmy Komack, yawns that into the hotel phone because one has spent hours and hours and hours sitting in another of the suites, anticipating even a word with Komack’s protégé. Komack doesn’t bother to stifle the yawns because his series is so successful that Freddie, just 20 and until September an unknown Catskills stand-up comic, no longer needs publicity, good or bad. (How curious it always seems to find those who will starve or murder for public recognition so distraught when confronted with it, so distressed at scribbling their names in autograph books, so genuinely, demonstrably burdened when faced with writers.) One has cajoled, threatened and hung about the greenroom backstage at the Douglas show and outside the locked Prinze dressing room and has, to be accurate, already had the following exchange with the star:

“Uh, hi.” This he has offered en route from the greenroom to the camera; and he has smiled, which counts as a further comment, for off camera he smiles rarely. In addition he has said into his hotel-suite phone, after answering it in a disguised voice, “Oh, hi, man, they said you were coming down from New York. Uh, what’s the name again? Whew: Philadelphia. No governor ever stayed in this hole they got me in. This hotel, you can still see the sockets where the red lights were, right? The room service guys, they all got prison tattoos.” There are pauses, for laughter: Apparently it’s his habit to carry on one-sided, one-liner phone conversations, even with strangers. No, he wouldn’t be into talking for the press tonight; maybe, urn, tomorrow. “We’ll, uh, rap all during lunch break and dinner and, who knows, maybe all night!” But of course that doesn’t quite work out: Backstage at the Douglas show, he is taut, glum, unapproachable, until the mike swings in and he is cued. “Saludos, amigos,” he begins, still off camera, “Ayee’m Fredd-dee Prinze.”

This causes bedlam in the studio audience. “I have never met anyone this young with this much ability,” Mike Douglas asserts a few minutes later, when Freddie’s brought out. There’s a second applause tidal wave. “He’s got to be the reincarnation of, hmm, another person.”

Freddie responds, “Ju-dee Garlan’, maybe?” Douglas laughs apprehensively and wants to know: How does it feel, being an overnight star?

“EEET EEZ WUNNERFUL! I can buy my folks a house now, I’m not the only one in the family who’s escaping the ghetto.” He is, he adds, affecting seriousness, an example to minorities everywhere. “It shows the kids,” and this is said in his normal inflection, undiluted South Bronx, “that no matter where you were raised, you can get out. I was born in Hell’s Kitchen, we moved to a sort of suburb of Harlem with the fungus trees, the birds were all winos. Yeah, I’d have been as funny even if I hadn’t grown up there.” His father, he adds, is Hungarian, Lutheran and Jewish, his mother Puerto Rican, “that’s why I’m a ‘Hungarican!’ ” The audience, apparently unfamiliar with this standard bit of his, applauds. “I was very close to my mother – for the first nine months.” Applause, applause. “Mom used to give me a dollar every morning, saying, ‘Eeef you get mugged, you geeve heeem theees.’ (Douglas has been trying to ask him straight, biographical questions; you wonder here if it’s possible anymore for Freddie to respond to any question without an ethnic one-liner.) “So every day, I geeeve the mugger the buck, ’till one day I spent it on candy, and when I tell the mugger that he says, ‘I’m gonna tell your ma!‘ “

Here Freddie is blindfolded, and two “mystery guests” are nudged onstage. “Pa! It’s gotta be Pa, the original Hungarican – I can smell the alcohol! And Mom’s there, I can smell the rice and beans on her breath.” Pa and Mom laugh good-naturedly; they seem pleasant, tidy people, though it is hard to watch them here, forced into the embarrassing show window of media without the faintest perception that the very nature of it, the network talk-show ambiance, patronizes them. Freddie’s mother explains easily in her gentle, liquid accent what a good child he always was and displays his baby pictures. “But heez teacher say to me, ‘Mrs. Prinze, eet eez very difficult to conduct classes with Freddie in the room, he is making everybody laugh.’ He always imitate my way of speaking, makes fun of me; I never mind. He was trying … to do something, be funny, get out of ghetto. He does love moneee! Now I must change my telephone number, twice, girls calling.”

Backstage in the greenroom, Bobby Vinton, who’s watching the monitor, waiting to go on and sing, belches dyspeptically.

Then it’s time for Freddie’s stand-up routine: Hungarican gets a third laugh (“Kids said my folks met on the subways trying to pick each other’s pockets”). Naturally, Mr. Rivera, his parents’ building superintendent, is described: Asked to turn up the heat, Mr. Rivera says, guess what, “EEEZ NOT MAI JOB!” Freddie tells the audience, “Then I started saying that on TV and, this is true, the next time I went home and ran into Mr. Rivera – who really exists – he was very annoyed, he told me not to mock him on TV. Well, I got annoyed, I said to turn off the set if he didn’t like it. And he said,” with a huge laugh, ” ‘EEEZNOTMAIJOB!’ ” Audience response is orgasmic. Preparing for the next “mystery guest,” Douglas explains that when Freddie got his start, at New York’s Improvisation Club, which lets unpaid comics try their material on the paying guests, the club’s emcee was Jimmie Walker, now another TV ethnic superhero, J.J. of the black comedy Good Times. “Jimmie, he is dy-no-mite,” Freddie shouts. “He usta introduce me at the club like this, he’d go, ‘An’ nooow, MY MAIN MAN, MY BROTHER FROM THE GHETTO, BROTHER PRINZE!!!’ ” Which provides an entrance cue for Brother Walker, who bounds on in his full J.J. character; after he and Freddie execute an intricate, crowd-pleasing, show-business-ghetto handshake, he sits and remarks, “Well, thought I’d jus’ sneak in here on Brother Prinze, my man, see wha’s happenin’. Jus’ snuck in from Vegas, where I was scoutin’ the area; I see there are no black folks there, so I tell ’em, ‘This is a good place to start a ghetto!'”

“An’ theees time, he take theee Spanish people with heeem!” Douglas, looking strained now under his glued smile, attempts interviewing again, asking J.J. where he grew up. “In the South Bronx, man, where they shoot d’war movies. They don’ wanta go t’Europe, they jus’ come up to my neighborhood, where the fightin’s free. They refused to renew my neighborhood, it’s so bad, though Mayor Lindsay did come up and have some pictures taken with Geraldo Rivera …” Douglas asks, quite seriously, if either of them had grown up in, say, Shaker Heights, would they have turned out as funny? J.J.’s ready.

“Shaker Heights? Ain’t dat de Caucasian ghetto? Yeah, great idea, a rich black comedian! How I got started, I jus’ looked for a TV spot, any spot, so’s I could display MY EBONY GENIUS! Did killer auditions, they’d say, ‘No, you’re more hostile than Dick Gregory,’ then, ‘No, you’re more caustic than Mort Sahl.’ Finally they got to it, they said, ‘You can’t get on ‘CAUSE YOU ARE BLACKER THAN THE ACE OF SPADES!’ Then, for Good Times, I laid ’em out a few true facts: Told ’em I had half a watermelon in my room, an’ they said, ‘He’s EL CORRECTO!’ Now Brother Prinze here, he is a true Latin Lover, held the woman record at the Improv, 80 in six months. I have difficulty with women, bein’ EBONY GENIUS an’ all, even with my DE-LUXE approach, as opposed to my JIVE approach. A lady jus’ looks at me an’ says, ‘Honey, if Black is Beautiful, you gotta be the white sheep a the family!’ Now the word Dy-NO-mite – well, it jus’ happened rehearsing Good Times. The regular word was in the script, but see, I fumbled it, I’m a poor reader, bein’ from the ghetto …”


He and Freddie joyously perform the complex handshake again backstage after the show, darting out a side door into the limousine, eluding the audience’s autograph books, bound in fake blue leather like British passports. I am then sought out by a member of the Prinze entourage, appendages typical of those which accumulate around new stars; members of these usually acquire titles such as associate producer, assistant manager; often they are merely jobless friends and, in Freddie’s case, the group includes a couple of these who don’t claim to be anything else. But it is an associate something-or-other who bears the urgent news that since J.J. is only in town for another hour, Freddie must, repeat, must have a private lunch with him or risk rudeness, and maybe one could stop in the restaurant, Bookbinder’s, in, say, a couple of hours, when they have finished, in his words, “their big rap.” This lunch, however, turns out to have been attended by all the assistants, associates and old friends and is disbanding when I arrive. Finishing their coffee in the stately, elegant restaurant, both Jimmie and Freddie appear subdued, serious; only when someone addresses them directly do they seem compelled to slip into a public demeanor studded with Main Mans and Ebony Geniuses and Eeznotmaijobs. J.J. and his attendants exit first; Freddie’s baby face is abruptly haggard, dismayed.

“Jimmie didn’t take the limo, did he? To go to the airport?” The hotel is five blocks, after all. Reassured, he adds, “Good, gotta get to the hotel, we got an hour or so, I feel a deep need to sleep.”

“Freddie does sleep a lot,” a subordinate, left with the check, concedes when everyone’s gone. “But, uh, can’t interview a guy when he needs sleep, am I right?” Later, back in the greenroom, Freddie’s agent, a gentle young man from the William Morris Agency, offers, “Look, I want to apologize for Freddie. I know you’re here to talk to him, I know he promised you the whole lunch break, I just told him he has been rude. Very. But … Freddie is rude. He doesn’t mean to be, he doesn’t even realize it. He is a kid. He still doesn’t comprehend this incredible thing that’s happened to him. I realize that isn’t an excuse …”

No, not in the Prinze case: For one thing, it’s obvious, watching him as Chico, that he has an informed, practiced, thoroughly professional sense of the business he’s in. Also, I have overheard him dealing by phone with his West Coast manager in a clearheaded, organized, stunningly mature directive: “No, I’m not asking for $10,000 a show next year. Not yet. That’s final. Two thousand this season, four to forty-five hundred a show next. I’m not going to appear that greedy a motherfucker – yet. Sure I deserve it, but look, we’re hardly hurting, there’s the record deal, the big club dates when I’m on hiatus, and $3,000 total for just this Douglas gig, and Celebrity Sweepstakes still owes us for that week I did, and that one Playboy Club. But I do want a meeting with David Wolper in L.A., Monday morning …” Listening, you are somehow better disposed to him. Rude perhaps, arrogant certainly, yet it’s good to hear a young performer dealing so lucidly with his business himself; good, too, to hear Freddie speak for once completely out of character, without a trace of either his series impersonation or his public deportment, which so closely resemble each other. By eavesdropping, you perceive that he is an adult and not a stupid one. It is at least something.

As opposed to nothing, which is the further contribution of Jimmy Komack. A former actor, he did a minor role in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Perceiving through the viewing of Good Times, Get Christie Love, That’s My Mama, et al. that money was to be made in series based on racial imbalance, he thought about L.A.’s restive Chicanos and nervous white supremacists and had a little talk with NBC about it. Now he shines his shoes with TV actors’ union scale and wears prescribed Beverly Hills producer mufti, mostly by Gucci. Oddly, he talks like Jack Albertson, without the charisma. Dinner with Freddie alone that night has been painstakingly rearranged, through emissaries; but after the Douglas taping and a short meeting with an awed representative of Philadelphia’s mayor, who wants to give Freddie the key to the city the next morning, and autographs for stagedoor suppliants, one finds the limo filled with Freddie’s Friends, most notably Komack, wearing a Chico and the Man T-shirt under the Gucci.

“You hear me speaking Spanish with those autograph cats?” Freddie says, as the driver aims the Cadillac toward a steak house. “Dy-no-mite. Lots of Spanish people there tonight. They are my people, man!

“This key-to-the-city bullshit,” Komack snarls. “Listen, I found out the mayor isn’t even in town, it’s only the deputy mayor, so we give ’em five minutes, you take the fucking key, sign a few autographs, smile and we split.” He glances at me, then at Freddie, protectively. The car’s jumpseats are occupied by two of the old-friend contingent: Nat, a kind-eyed, quiet black boy, and Alan, a fledgling comic who was Freddie’s roommate in New York and later in L.A., who is Freddie’s age though he appears to be under 14, and whom Freddie has generously introduced to Douglas’s audience and even encouraged to do a brief stand-up bit which is, in style and content, markedly reminiscent of Freddie himself. Alan’s animation is unrelieved but even he acts as a mute spear carrier during Freddie’s spectacular restaurant entrance: Waiters, barmaids, maître d’s, cocktail pianists and even the syndicate managers with pinky rings line up in the vestibule, like the Buckingham Palace staff when the queen comes home. There are choruses of instructions to write in magically produced autograph books (“Does everybody carry ’em?” Freddie says sotto voce) inscriptions “to-my-kid-Darlene-but-it’s-really-for-me,” and this continues even through the sirloin and onion rings. As Komack, after martinis, talks as insistently as Alan, they are left to interrupt one another, attended by the always silent Nat, and we finally attempt rudimentary interviewing.

“Autographs,” he begins when one mentions them, “sure they can be an ass pain, but listen: I love it.” His voice and eyes are hard as lead, abruptly devoid of irony. “Love it. Truth. This is what I dreamed of, man, prayed for, since I was five. And I knew then it was gonna happen to me, also truth. Everything I say in my routines is truth: I was born in Hell and grew up in Hell and it was not laughs. My mom and dad actually met at the hot-dog stand of the shitty factory they worked in – he picked her up, she didn’t know shit about Americans. We moved when the rent came due. I did get regularly mugged, man, Friday, pay day, was very nervous. I fitted in nowhere: I wasn’t true spic, true Jew, true anything. I was a miserable fat schmuck kid with glasses and asthma, ‘He can’t play sports, he’ll drop dead if he runs half a block.’ I couldn’t hang out with guys; I also got good grades, which made all the other cats look bad. I learned very early to hate. It was a secret fuck-you attitude, but I knew I wouldn’t end up like them, fat and schmucky at 40 in front of some fucking tenement TV set; that I would be something big – a CIA agent, a big international spy, anything to split from that ordinariness! I started doing comedy by chance, purely as a defense: I was always funny around the house, doing Mom’s Hispano, breaking her up with old jokes I heard on Ed Sullivan; then one day I got beat up bad in the street, cut up bad, and the next time I saw those fuckers coming, I started firing one-liners at ’em. And it worked, they cracked up! Truth! From then on I was funny all the time, I was a super mimic, I’d get kicked out of class for doing the teacher, stick my head through the door and get somebody to laugh so they’d get kicked out too and we could do a duo at the window, by now the teacher’s cracking up! I started doing half-hour routines in the boys’ room, just winging it, guys’d cut class to catch the act, it was, ‘What time’s Freddie playing the toilet today?'”

The school was Lutheran; that was his father’s idea. “The Jewish part of him didn’t move him much. Mom made me go to Sunday mass, all very confusing until I found I could crack up the priests doing Martin Luther.” Eventually his school principal was not amused with the S.R.O. situation in the boys’ room and Freddie was forced out and into public school. “Inwood, where if you were late to class, it was because you’d got knifed on the stairs. ‘He can’t make it to math, teach, he was killed during the escape from chemistry.’ See, I’m looking at it now like I tried to then, comically, just to survive it. Jesus, to get home on the streets was worth the Purple Heart. I finally quit going to school, I stayed home 108 days straight, reading parapsychology, I knew more than the teachers by then. Also, I quit church. Listen, man, I still pray, when I want something, so it’s constantly. But the Catholic Church. Jesus! Priests and nuns on this plateau, between humans and angels, y’know? I thought, well, I’ll confess my sins directly to God, who’s supposed t’be a good guy, instead of seeing these intermediaries. They all go to the bathroom too, it struck me, they all play with themselves; all the mothers wanted their sons to be priests, they didn’t know that alotta the fathers were actually sisters – who love all God’s creatures, except of course the faggots, niggers and kikes. God didn’t mean t’make them, just a mistake of His to be overlooked. Christ, the hypocrisy! Very young, I decided to worship on my own time – and I started turning that into part of my act, I’d say, ‘I usta wear a St. Christopher medal, then all the saints got laid off. Who broke that to Christ? Does God have, like, an office? Hold the prayers! Gabriel, hold the trumpet, listen to your Herb Alpert records instead. Listen, Christ, the protection racket was okay, the medals sold, but now I gotta let you go, things are tough all over …’ See, even then I could construct stuff. Alotta guys think that way, but I could construct it into comedy material, always, just automatically, and all the time I was learning how to select, make choices, judging laughs, how far I could go. Like today, you can make all the jokes you want about Gerald Ford or Rockefeller, but mention that their wives got their tits cut off, and you’ll get weird laughs; I mean, tit-fetish people, they’re an audience minority …”

This has all been delivered very soberly, rapidly and with a certain discomfort: Odd, that someone so clearly self-cherishing should so dislike talking about himself, except when it is leading to humor, to stand-up material, which he obviously develops any time he talks; his mind jots down new thoughts, new lines for polishing later. He is really only comfortable in conversation that is comic exchange, with friends as a straight-man audience. The talk at the table around us has spent itself because he has been absent from it; they all glance at us now, awaiting his participation.

“What about Douglas doing that ‘roommate’ bit about us?” Freddie demands of Alan, who when he smiles resembles Disney’s Bambi.

“You were a terrible roommate, lousy,” Alan asserts satirically, “a total slob, while I’m … fastidious.” He likes the word. “Listen, I’m kidding, if anything I say here gets into print, I’ll sue!”

Freddie gestures obscenely with a butter knife. “Listen, man, I meant just before Douglas brought you out onstage, it flashed on the credits, ‘Next, Freddie’s Roommate.’ Jesus, what the unwashed public’s gonna make of that.”

“Yeah, this girl I dated, she asked me, ‘Are you and Freddie gay?’ Just because we lived together.”

“She sensed it, Alan – in you. Admit it! Admit it to yourself, Shirley! When we had an apartment, every time I took a shower he was in the bathroom asking if I had enough soap.”

You’re always talking about cock sizes! I will sue if any of this gets in the paper!” Something cautious passes behind Freddie’s eyes, though he keeps on laughing. Quickly he says, “When I lived at home I used to sneak all these girls up to my room, only I had a single bed and had to make room for us on the floor, with like a quilt and a couple a pillows. Once Mom asked, ‘Who stayed over?’ I said, ‘Nat did.’ She said ‘Freddeee, don’t you got sometheeng t’tell me? God will forgeeeve you anytheeeeng, Freddeee!’ Then she discovered me with a chick, so it was okay. I don’t mind faggots. I can’t stand the kamikaze faggot who’s so psyched out by rejection he’ll attack anything, a telephone pole, but Christ, the dumb rubes who say, ‘A ho-mo-sex-u-al is any man who liked to play with penises.’ That makes us all faggots! And listen, every guy plays with himself, every guy secretly thinks, if only I could give myself head! That’s why yoga is so popular, the lotus position, it’s why guys who achieve it look so content! They have found the true key to inner peace! Everybody’s got his perversion! You hear that, Alan? I am your friend anyway.”

“What I am, Prinze, is asexual.” He likes that word, too, though he considers it, as though he did not quite know its meaning. “Asexual. And Komack here is a chicken hawk. And as for you, Freddie – and Tab Hunter! And maybe Richard Thomas!”

“Who’s Richard Thomas?” Freddie asks, genuinely curious. Clearly he doesn’t know. Alan says, “You dummy. You never watch TV? Freddie went to the High School of Performing Arts, in New York, he tell you? So did Nat here. I auditioned too, they didn’t take me. It’s a public school, and very ethnically biased: They take Spanish and blacks before anybody …”

Freddie spits out a piece of gristle. “You hate spics, niggers and Jews, don’t you? You’re a bigot faggot!” The laughter is complacent, because it’s assumed the listeners know it’s all been just in fun; but now Freddie yawns, asking the time. The manager materializes at his elbow to offer a bottle of wine on the house. Have they got Pouilly-Fuissé? Komack wants to know. No, they happen to be fresh out of that delicacy. “Well, you wanta pick up the table’s drink tab instead? Freddie’d appreciate that …”

Yawning conspicuously back in the hotel lobby, Freddie explains that he has to sleep again, can’t talk tonight. “So look, call me at nine in the morning, you can ride with us in the limo back to New York. We’ll, uh, go on talking.” And the elevator door closes behind him with gentle, respectful finality. At 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 and 9:50 his room phone isn’t answered; Komack answers his on the second ring. “Oh, Freddie’s still sleeping. No, I can’t wake him, buddy. Sure I’m his producer, but most of all, I’m his friend. He doesn’t like being waked up. Call the hotel desk, maybe they’ll do it. Listen, about you riding to New York in the limo, that wouldn’t work out. ‘Cause there are already all his friends going. Freddie wouldn’t like it crowded. He wouldn’t talk to you. Besides, he’ll want to sleep.”

NBC is phoned for emergency aid; alone, one rides the Metroliner to Gotham, while north, at the network’s dark tower, neurasthenic image purveyors confer, transnational phone calls and wires snap between New York, Hollywood, the William Morris Agency and, eventually, between Komack and Freddie, when awake; all this does bear fruit, for the next day Freddie himself phones quite early, and one is summoned to the Warwick Hotel, where he’s staying a day before heading back to Burbank. (Can one pursue him to Hollywood, NBC wants to know? Not bloody likely, since the show is available on any tube any Friday and he’s made it perfectly clear he never allows the press in his home or anywhere near him outside working hours.)

“One more shitty hotel,” he begins, opening his room door. “Thought I’d stay with my folks, but I can bring chicks in here if I want, dig? Mom and Dad are moving out to California, I’m buying ’em a nice little house in the Valley – first they’ve ever had. Did I say that on Douglas? Oh. Well, me, I dig my apartment.” And he stretches out on the bed, to be asked questions. He smiles cooperatively. Possibly the network has commanded him to shape up, to ingratiate the press, or is that it? As usual with actors, whose business is the assuming of multiple personalities, it’s impossible to detect which is the real, which the manufactured. “Me, I don’t want a whole house, not till I’m, uh, settled in with a lady. My apartment is dy-no-mite! It’s up in the Hollywood Hills, the building’s even got a sauna. Great stereo, great fireplace, great skylight, great graphic I did myself, of Marilyn Monroe, silver and black. Fuck it, get the place you want, go into hock to do it! See, I’m safe in there, from bullshit, from fans, from …”

Interviews. He doesn’t react to that at all. “Never could afford my own place before, lived with my folks way uptown, school was in Manhattan, I worked nights in Manhattan, it was home on the subway at dawn, then up for school, a killer. The Performing Arts school, all these kids I knew auditioned, hundreds, and they took me. Nobody thought I had a chance, they wanted actors at the school, not comics. It was, ‘Hey, the dumb motherfucker goof-off made it!’ I’d slimmed down by then, gotten tall, wasn’t having trouble with women anymore. I had always had trouble with chicks. Oh, I had the standard sexual fantasies, thank God for Playboy and the bathroom door lock or I’d never have survived. Of course I suspected that I’d die if Mom, God or the Mafia saw me playing with myself. Then I met this chick at school, she was very into acting, very independent, it was like going with a liberated dyke, but we were great together, I was so into my thing: First the cabaret nights at school, you were supposed to go on for like 15 minutes of stand-up comedy, I’d do 45, I was in heaven: But I dropped out of the fucking school, they also made you take academics, I knew I’d never need that, never work at some job, Jesus, getting on a subway every morning packed against broads with foul hairspray and you can’t breathe, the smell of wet fake leather and fur, Vitalis, Jade East, creepy-crawly shit!”

But the Improvisation Club did require subway commuting. “By my junior school year I was there every night waiting to get onstage. Prime time, when the crowd was there, was like 10 p.m. till 1 a.m. They never let me till like 3 a.m. when the place was empty. I started waiting at the bar, getting drunk, which I was the first time they suddenly said in prime time, ‘Go on.’ And I blew the spot!” This is not meant to be amusing, he studies the lines in his hands like a culpable palmist. “Horrendous night. I forgot lines, stumbled around, they were yelling GET THE FUCKER OFFSTAGE. But I kept going back to the club, writing new material every day, writing my ass off. Hit the other clubs too, the ones for young comics: Catch a Rising Star uptown, the Bitter End in the Village, just hung out till they got tired of seeing me, and finally one night at the Improv, they let me try prime time again. I was sober, man, and I stayed on there for one hour and a half! Nobody’d ever dared that before, it was my turning point: I was dy-no-mite, all these managers suddenly wanted me, one said, ‘You are the first young comedian to remind me of Lenny Bruce!’ Who? I did not know who the fuck Lenny Bruce was! ‘You’ve got to choose,’ the manager said, ‘choose now, between being very hip or going very commercial.'”

And the choice he made is fairly obvious, isn’t it? He takes that with the same prepared equanimity, though he doesn’t exactly acknowledge the question. “The, uh, stuff about up freaks, for instance – ‘Whaddya mean I’m hooked on uppers, just because I commute to work every day, in Europe?’ Or, ‘You got an up, man? I got kindergarten in five minutes.’ Well, Middle America just doesn’t dig that, or certain kinds of hip ethnic jokes, such as, ‘The next group to make it could be the Eskimos, NBC’s planning Let’s Make a Seal.’ They don’t get that stuff or I’d do it. In one Playboy Club, which is the squarest audience, paraplegic 90-year-olds, I did, ‘You can’t question Nixon’s virility, he fucked a hundred million people,’ and I swear to you, that started a riot in that place. Really. And what are you gonna do, you need clubs and stuff like Carson. My first time on Carson I was dynamite, he even asked me to sit down with the panel afterward, and you never get to do that till you’ve been on four times, till Johnny likes you. That was before Chico, of course. Also, look, I do not want to sound like Lenny Bruce; I have got to be unique. Totally. Naturally, you do what they’re gonna understand – like ‘the Puertorican-mobile,’ a ’64 Chevy with thee pom-poms on thee antenna, saints on thee dash, thee leetle dog in thee back window with head waggin’ up an’ down; and that I am ee-noyed there is no Puerto Rican astronaut, thee bigots think we will blow thee horn all thee way to thee moon, play thee radio, stick our heads out thee window and whistle, ‘Hey, hon-ee, mira-mira,’ and then, on thee moon, thee white astronaut says, ‘Bring in the rocks now,’ and we re-ply, ‘EEZNOTMAIJOB, MAN!’ David Brenner, who played the Improv same time I did, he said, ‘Never repeat material, keep it always new,’ and I had the sense to disagree with him, to keep repeating certain bits, for recognition. Eeznotmaijob, that’s become part of the language, man! Like ‘Sock it to me’ did. Without that repetition, people wouldn’t have got to know … me.”

But something troubles him here, the eyes cloud again; he is lighting lots of cigarettes. Possibly he realizes that while this catch-phrase approach is very profitable, it isn’t very creative? “I know.” Distressed exhale. And neither is the relentless ethnicity? “I’ll tell you, I do think Jimmie Walker, while I love the guy, he takes that bit too far, a total barrage of it. When we’re together, I fall into the trap. And what Jimmie does – it is Uncle Tom humor. I know black people who told me that if they ever met him, they’d strangle him! The lengths he takes it to, it’s not good or healthy for the ethnic minorities. It’s oppressing.”

Oh. How about the fact that it’s also boring? “Nope, sorry, I’m the first to admit that when I get into trouble onstage, maybe some line has bombed, and the ethnic bit, the accent, the eeznotmaijob routine, it is always my savior! Especially with the TV-mentality crowd …”

Just when Komack had sensed this too, he happened to catch Freddie on Carson, and instantly called to arrange an audition. ‘There were about 40 other guys there, we had to read a Chico script cold, but afterward Jim talked to me. He said Albertson’s character was set, while the other guy, this Mexican, they didn’t know yet what he’d be like. ‘Create Chico for me,’ he said, and, man, I did, the concept of that character, which is the show, is mine. Still, there were four other guys they liked, I had to wait five fucking weeks to hear if I had it! Je-sus. Look, I hung around the L.A. Chicano ghettos to sort of add to the character, and man, I understand why they protested the show. I agreed with ’em. But I just work there, y’know? I’m not kidding myself about the scripts being Neil Simon, I’d say that out of our first 13, maybe five were any good. Komack will murder me, but you want honesty and that’s my opinion. Albert-son, I’ve adopted him as my uncle, that’s how well we blend. Jack’s a pro, there is no jealousy from him, even though we’re on the air one week and everybody in the street is saying ‘EEZNOTMAIJOB.’ Ha! We’re on two weeks, and Performing Arts High calls to say they would now like to present me with my diploma. Seriously! I said thanks but fuck yourself, you taught me shit about comedy, I taught me, and I might make a guest appearance at your next graduation, if I’ve got time. Those dumb fucks now brag about how me and Al Pacino went there, and Al they kicked out in the tenth grade!”

Unobtrusively, he consults a clock: He has agreed to two hours’ talk and most of it’s spent, though he seems not to be. “I don’t mind talking to you. I’m surprised. You gotta understand, this interview bit, so far they’ve all come in with these lists of idiot questions, such as, I’m serious, ‘What is your favorite color, favorite food, favorite …’ Bullshit! And of course they gotta know about Kitty Bruce. I decided not to comment on her at all anymore, so this is an exclusive: Kitty is an angel of a lady. The papers had us married, also bullshit, but the publicity did help the Lenny movie. She said, ‘You are the first comic to make me laugh since my father.’ Wow. Except I’m not Lenny, I’m Freddie, Puerto Rican all the way. But if I could marry any lady, it would be Kitty Bruce.”

Could? “I mean … I’ve got plans which I gotta realize before I settle in. I don’t mean just TV, or clubs; oh, I’ll do the big Vegas and Tahoe spots now, they’ll pack in just to see Chico in person, to hear ‘eeznotmaijob,’ and they’ll love it. At this point, they laugh when I say hello. Y’know? But that’s not what I mean when I talk about future. I want to become … Freddie Prinze the complete entertainer! By the time I’m 25, I may just be the best producer/writer in the business. I’m going to write my own series and produce it, and it’ll be, ‘Hey, he did it again, even bigger!’ I will never have, ‘Oh him, he was a heavy a coupla years ago,’ no way. They are going to be saying, ‘He is better than Norman Lear!’ You dig? And maybe I’m gonna have to put in a heavy couple of years of study to get the quality level I’m gonna get. Another thing about marriage – it not only takes time, it invades privacy, and man, privacy to me is beyond sacred. Like my safe apartment – I had to move to Hollywood very fast to start Chico, knew nobody, had to set up a new life. Had to set up credit. Things like that are very important to me. Had to get a car – bought this junk Skylark, but the Chico producers said, if that thing blows up on him, we lose our series, so they leased this Corvette for me, they’re going to give it to me end of the season. New Corvette. Far out. And I had to find … my crowd, decide who the assholes and phonies were, who was real. And I got a great crowd: jazz musicians, comics like Richie Pryor, who, by the way, could just stand on a stage 20 minutes silent and I’d crack up. That’s not ’cause he’s black, it’s his style. Like, David Steinberg cannot make me laugh, but Pryor: Dy-no-mite! He’s the only big name close to me, the others are just people – sane, crazy, straight, gay, a very underground crowd, my own elite.”

Go out? In Hollywood? He makes retching noises. “We stay in my apartment, drink good cognac, listen to my great stereo. Yeah, sometimes somebody has a joint, I’ll smoke it, but I’m not into drugs; look, I grew up with ’em, did it all, sniffed coke, but no more, because it’s wasted too many guys, too many comics, and I got too much to get done. Hollywood: It’s like … a vile, evil woman, man, a vicious whore who’ll turn on you. I’m protected: Like, there are now these thousands of fans trying to find me. No way. I see these troops of girls going up and down the street outside, knocking on all the doors because some fan magazine said I lived on Hollywood Boulevard, and now they’re working their way the length of it! They ring my super’s bell, they swear they’re friends of mine, they shout, ‘We saw him go in here, we’re going in too!’ Un-believable. I got all these different voices I answer the phone with. Man, that shit is not gonna get in my way, and neither is the other Hollywood, the smart-ass chic crowd. Oh, I went once to the Candy Store, Pips, the Saloon, the Daisy, as an experiment. I can go up to Hef’s mansion any time I want; some Fridays I do go, when he’s screening a good movie, but that shit up there is not me. Hef’s crowd is Hef’s, I gotta have my people, who have one thing in common, which is fuck Hefner. His world.”

Contemplative pause; then, quickly, “Oh, I, uh, respect the man, he opened up a whole, uh, spectrum for us all, no offense to Hef. I guess it’s not his fault all those phonies hang out at the mansion. Jesus, so weird to watch their technique for pretending to have a good time! They don’t kiss, they touch cheekbones. You can tell who’s important by who’s got a bruised cheek. Those biggies, they get very pissed now when I don’t show up at their parties. ‘He oughta be one of us, he oughta be honored to be!’ Man, I love it that I’m needling them! Like, ‘Where does he live, where does he drive that jive Corvette, who are his weird friends, what do they do?’ Dy-no-mite! The whole town is wondering about me, it bugs shit out of them that they can’t get to me. They all wish they could do what I’ve done, man! Managers say to me, ‘You gotta be seen places.’ Why? I’m on top, man, without nobody seeing me nowhere …”

He relaxes against the pillows propped on the headboard, breathing the confidence of this; at the same time, there is a hardened something in his. expression, something beyond pleased security, something seasoned, worldly, years older than 20. You wonder aloud why it is so hard to remember that he is so young? The public grin. “How about that I’m, uh, really 40, had a face job and am making a comeback? No? Okay, how about … that I am truly Lenny, reincarnated?” Fortunately, reaction to this is not needed, because the West Coast phones to talk schedule: He’s taping the new Flip Wilson special the following week. And the doorbell interferes with that conference: His parents have come, neat and beaming, for dinner on the town. Clearly they’ve realized that on his arm, they can no longer appear privately in public and are dressed appropriately. Ron Galella could be out there on any corner. Freddie makes rudimentary introductions, but one has been shown politely to the door before it is made clear to Mr. and Mrs. Prinze that one is not actually one of the Rolling Stones.

In This Article: Bronx, Coverwall, Freddie Prinze, New York

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