The tragedy of Freddie Prinze. Before the age of 22 years-old Freddie was guest hosting for the legendary Johnny Carson and starred in his own sitcom.
His head slumped to the side after an earnest plea to put down a hand gun that Freddie held tightly to his left temple moments before. Instantly his Agent, Marvin “Dusty” Snyder, knew something had gone wrong. Prinze’s rich dark black hair swooped over his once engaging brown eyes now half closed in a coma like state. The muffled sound of a disengaged gun Snyder attempted to try and wrangle away from Prinze while sitting on his hotel sofa confirmed his deepest fear. Freddie Prinze had finally shot himself after years of threatening to do so at the age of 22.
The biggest misconception about famous actors, actresses, singers or performers of any kind (sports included) are that they are always happy? You have to remember that “fame”, which at times can come as a surprise and at an early age, is not always the best thing to happen to a person. Like Freddie, many entertainers are from humble financial beginnings and with a sudden jolt of overwhelming cash and notoriety can only complicate any existing personal issues. Prinze had already tried to kill himself at the age of 17 and his multiple threats to do harm to himself since then were all too routine until his final attempt at on January 27, 1977. Thirty-three hours later he would be dead.
The bloody scene inside Prinze’s extended hotel stay at “The Beverly Hills Hotel Plaza”on the surface appeared impulsive and perhaps accidental. However, a suicide note found later by police confirmed Prinze’s desire to end his life that day was anything but spontaneous. After Prinze’s death his family would contest the “exact cause” verbiage used on the death certificate on whether it was truly “intentional” or “accidental”? The outcome might surprise you in which we will cover later in this article.
Ironically, Prinze’s pursuit to move on from this life was met with a small miracle. Despite the extensive brain damage inflicted by a close range shot Freddie lived longer then expected with the aide of emergency surgery. The UCLA Medical Center physicians team worked ferociously for two hours to bring Prinze at least to artificial life support and then hope for the best. Prinze’s wife and Mother began their vigil praying for a miracle. Prinze was comatose and never was able to communicate through the 33 hours until his death.
Born, Frederick Karl Pruetzel in New York City, he was the only child of a Hungarian Father, Edward Karl Pruetzel, and a Puerto Rican Mother, Aurea Elena Ruiz. Edward Karl worked as a tool and die maker while Maria was employed in a factory.
The Washington Heights section of New York City, is where Freddie spent his youth before his career exploded. “Pruetzel” was changed to “Prinze” as a play on words “Prince/Prinze of Comedy”. Originally wanting to change his name to “King”, Alan King was already in comedy at that time and duplicating it would not only be insulting but would not differentiate Freddie from the comedic legend. Therefore, with the advice of his good friend and fellow comedian David Brenner, Freddie became “Freddie Prinze”.
Apartment 64, 550 West 157th Street in Washington Heights was where, says Freddie,
“you could take drugs and escape into your own little world of euphoria, or you could sell them and make that temporary quick money and the big flashy car and the clothes and the women, or you could find something within yourself.” Freddie’s parents (his dad is a tool-and-die maker, his mom a factory worker) tried to steer him into the arts — piano (“but I couldn’t hack the discipline”) and ballet (“because I was a fat kid”).
If you inquire on the Real Estate Website “Zillo” today, the Apartment Freddie grew-up in is now sold has permanent housing at $929,424. A far cry from the “week-to-week” paycheck tenants that were living there in the 1970’s. Many of Freddie’s friends were in and out of jail. They were stuck on 157th Street.
“One day I’d like some kid to say, ‘Hey, I could be a dealer or a junkie, but, hey, screw it. Prinze got out…I’ll get out.’ ”
Freddie’s window from his parents Washington Heights apartment sat over the 157th street subway exit. A perfect line from his window down to innocent commuters with his love of dropping wet paper toilet bombs. A graffiti riddled telephone booth sat near the entrance to the subway stairs where Prinze would estimate his targets. Like any street savoy New Yorker though, they didn’t need to be hit a second time to know they needed to look up while swiftly making their way down the subway stairs. Freddie was not a bad kid he just liked to clown around. He adored his Mother so he never wanted to disappoint her by getting into really big trouble.
The Prinze family did not have much money but Freddie was so adored (especially being the only child) by his Mother that she would give him money every day so he could spend it at Hornstein’s Stationery store on 3764 Broadway. Images of a chubby little boy running out of Hornstein’s were vivid to then owner Herb Rubin. Prinze, according to Rubin, liked to come into the store and read all the magazines so he didn’t have to pay for them so Rubin would chase him out into the street. When he did buy anything it was always books about Actors and Actresses said then store manager, Warren Lee, reflecting in a 1978 Daily News article. Lee knew Freddie 20 of his young 22 years and remembered fondly that Prinze bought books about Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day. Those he would buy because he would read them over and over again studying them as if he was trying to pass the New York City Bar Exam. Creasing the sides of the pages he wanted to refer back to while writing notes in the margin, Freddie wanted to absorb all the information he could about being famous and living the celebrity life. Almost as if he knew he needed to grab his chance early in life so he could fit it all in. Everyone in the neighborhood got a kick out of Freddie and his traveling comedy show as he liked to try out all his jokes and routines on anyone who would listen. A daily sight that had became a bitter-sweet memory after his death.
The image that Prinze eventually portrayed in his stand-up comedy acts as this rough and tough Puerto Rican from Washington Heights, is the image that he wanted you to see. A close friend also named Freddie (Solar) spoke of Prinze as;
“a short fat white kid that everyone used to beat-up. He threw a football like a girl. I don’t ever think he ever spoke Spanish?”
To his neighborhood friends who watched a thin and tan Prinze walk out onto the stage from behind the multi-colored curtains of the “Johnny Carson Show”, he had become a far cry from the shy insecure but funny adolescent they remember. A kind young man who liked to help old ladies across the street, a simple kid, “Muy Simpatico”, who performed impersonations of Ed Sullivan and New York city Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. All those celebrity books Prinze read was a blueprint to the character he portrayed on stage. Much like Marilyn Monroe, Prinze was conflicted between the person he pretended to be on the TV screen and the demons he battled deep inside for who he really was. Similarly, Marilyn Monroe also medicated herself to ease the pain as she too never was comfortable with neither the screen legend image adored by millions of fans and her real identity. This was purgatory for their soul where there is no connection between “self” or your spiritual being.
When his Quaalude use and self destructive behavior was at it’s peak, Freddie became paranoid and jealous. According to fellow comedian Jimmie Walker of “Good Times” fame, one time Freddie drove to John Travolta’s house with a high powered bow & arrow because he was so upset that he, rather then Freddie, was on the cover of a magazine called Tiger Beat. Travolta had been a growing sex symbol at that time due to his success on the sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter”. Thankfully Travolta was not at home when Prinze made the surprise visit. As Freddie walked away he shot 3 arrows into Travolta’s front door.
The sound of drums in the distance could be heard from the alley way not far from the Prinze Family apartment as described by another childhood friend Louis Calderon. He could see Freddie’s room from his window and remembers the drums beating all day long. Music was another love of Prinze and he liked to pretend to be a disc jockey by nailing down two tin cans to a piece of wood as if it were a control panel in a radio station. Convincingly, he would take requests for songs from his friends and family to be played in his pretend studio. There were other moments of made-up stories to entertain his friends like the time he told them that he received a letter from Mad Magazine asking Freddie to be their editor. Or, that a vase on his piano was worth $100,000 and the only one in the world. Additionally a story about Joe Namath, the New York Jets Icon of the 1970’s, was an idol of Freddie’s and he liked to tell everyone that they were really tight and how he was just at Joe’s house hanging-out. That was his favorite story.
Another favorite spot for Prinze to hang-out as a young man was a local bar named “Charlie’s Bar”. As you walked into the small watering hole owned by family friend Jaime Victor Peralta, you instantly noticed the walls lined with celebrity signed photographs. Some lightly stained with old beer or liquor mishaps from disoriented drunks, others powdered with years of dust from the first day they were hung. Peralta, spoke glowingly about Prinze shortly after his death. Next to a pinball machine (very popular in the 1970’s) was a pay phone where Freddie at 16 years old would make hundreds of phone calls to girls he wanted to date. Peralta recalled that he could always judge by Freddie’s face whether or not Prinze was convincing the seemingly unwilling female party on the other end that he was as smooth talking as he thought he was. Many times he would start out by facing us at the bar with his loud “love-talk” stage-show only to wind up turning around and facing the wall behind him in a low embarrassed tone conceding defeat. “Struck-out Again”, he would exclaim, followed by him slamming down the gum-sticky receiver with it’s stiff wire cord. He would always wonder out loud; “when am I ever going to find a girlfriend?”.
Prinze would borrow change from Peralta to play the “Ringling Brothers” themed pin ball machine after his failed phone calls. Often banging the machine with his hips against the metal crafted table and wobbly legs with anger. Freddie would have long periods of silence starring in a trance-like state with the saddest boyish glare toward the glass encased carnival lights until the out-of-tune bells silenced. Once he sipped the last bit of soda navigating through the remaining few ice cubes melting at the bottom, Freddie would place the glass on the bar and declare; “I’m outta here”! Then he would take his sunglasses off the top of his head and place them delicately over his eyes with a few shifts up and down to adjust comfortably. Then placing his big hands into the small jacket pockets he scurried out the front door into the summer sun.
In 1977, Depression treatment was ten years away from formal medication. Up until then, this condition was not widely identified especially in the poor neighborhoods. Depression was treated with drugs like Quaaludes as in Freddie’s case. Millions more people suffered from untreated depression and were dismissed as having “the blues” or if you were male, that you were weak if you exhibited signs of being “sad”. Prozac, the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), entered the market in 1987. Since then, more than 35 million people around the world have taken the drug to combat symptoms of depression.
The building Superintendent of the Prinze apartment complex, Feliciano Dias, remembers a time when he was making his morning rounds climbing up and down the stairs of the cramped tenement. He approached Apartment 64 and from the corner of his eye noticed a slight movement of a shadowy figure in front of a long mirror. Startled, he turned his head quickly to glance over and was surprised to find Freddie in a ballet pose? Dias took a step backwards to hide back into the shadows so not to disturb or embarrass Prinze. As he moved his head slightly again forward out of the shadow into the dim light he confirmed what he thought he observed. Freddie was practicing ballet moves in front of the hallway mirror with as much determination and concentration as any athlete. Dias was stunned.
At the age of 16, Prinze had enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts located at 120 West 46th Street in the borough of Manhattan, New York City. This was a cultural departure from the public school his friends attended at George Washington High. Many well-known performers were trained at the Performing Arts school, such as Eartha Kitt and Liza Minnelli before Prinze and Jennifer Anniston and Ving Rhames since 1977 (among others). Truthfully, Freddie’s Mother enrolled her son in Ballet thinking that he needed to lose a little weight and that Ballet would allow him to do this. Freddie Solar (Prinze’s friend) remembered that he had not seen Freddie for about 6 months after he enrolled in the Performing Art School and when he did happen to run into him one day, he was shocked to see how thin and fit he was. Also, he became a better athlete. Much more capable of throwing a football like a quarterback then a girl as he had described earlier.
Dias held onto a clarinet that Prinze had given him prior to leaving for Hollywood. Staring at it in a trance-like-state he described that last moment shortly after Freddie’s death;
With a fast bounce in his step, Freddie was beaming with excitement that he landed a role on a new sitcom called; “Chico and the Man”. This meant a one way flight to California the very next morning and little time to say his “good-bye’s” to friends and family. However, Freddie did his best by gathering some meaningful items from his room and handing them out as quickly as possible. He was carrying a few of those items in both hands as he was running down the Apartment stairs as Dias was going up the day before he was leaving. Like a kid who just found out that he had a day off from school, he was in a hurry to leave but wanted to give out a few things he held close to his heart. The clarinet was something he played since he was a little boy and he told Dias that it was his first introduction to entertainment. He promised to come back and visit but he wanted him to have the instrument just in case, as he joked,
“in case my apartment gets robbed by my Mother’s Puerto Rican relatives”.
He knew that the real reason Freddie gave him such a personal gift was because Dias was like a big brother to him and he wanted to show his appreciation. Ending the meeting with his classic grin and contagious laugh Freddie ran the rest of the way down three flights of uneven and scuff-worn stairs. That was the last time Dias saw Freddie truly happy. This was the small moment of time where the transition began from being little Freddie Pruetzel (that he saw grow-up from Washington Heights New York) to big Hollywood star “Freddie Prinze”. He was going to make us all proud Dias thought. They could never imagine that it would end so quickly and so tragically. Dias kept the clarinet in the top shelf of his coat closet taking it out every once in awhile running his short chubby fingers over the keys as if to feel the moment that Freddie was there.
“He had a lot of talent. I once showed him how to play the saxophone and he learned it in a few minutes”. Remembered Dias
Dias was fixing a hot water heater in the janitors room when he found out about Freddie. One of the local Bordega owners with his fruit stained apron over his winter jacket came by to tell him. At first when he said “Freddie is gone”, his first thought was that Prinze left Hollywood and quit show business? Dias refused to believe that Prinze was dead. However, he wasn’t exactly dead but in a coma. The information at that time was fuzzy as word-of-mouth and the radio was how most of the neighborhood first found out about the tragedy. By the time the news hit all the papers the next day (no internet at the time of 1977) the story became a little more clear and a little too real. Rumors speculated on how Freddie was shot and that he was possibly murdered. All of which were eventually squashed and there was confirmation that Prinze attempted suicide and was near death. Freddie’s friends all met near his Mother’s apartment to talk about their good friend and offer help to his family.
They formed a circle near the subway entrance under Prinze’s window of Apartment 64, all with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, all looking down at the ground as not to show the other that they were tearing up. Others from the neighborhood would walk by and ask “is it true about Freddie”?, mostly girls. The same girls that rejected Freddie before he was famous and fell in love with him after. Freddie was one of them and they were feeling like a part of them was dying right along with him. Some cursed Hollywood and even Johnny Carson as if he had pulled the trigger? Others blamed themselves for knowing Freddie could have been helped but men didn’t ask for help or offer an ear to express feelings especially in 1977. They were really sad for Prinze’s Mother and waited a long time before making their visit upstairs. However, they quickly found out that Freddie’s Mom and his estranged wife had left for California to be by his side.
In 1977 I was ten years old and oddly obsessed with Freddie Prinze’s suicide attempt and then eventual death. Suicide was somewhat intriguing to me and a little creepy and perhaps I was trying to figure out as a ten year old what it all meant? Unfortunately, a few years prior I was suddenly introduced to the topic of suicide when I was in second grade. A classmate’s Father committed suicide and our teacher, Mrs. Jones, had to break the news to us. With her blue floral 1970’s dress clutching a bunch of tissues, Mrs. Jones tearfully told us about our classmate Sammy Baylor and how he was not going to be returning to school for a while as his Father had committed suicide. We didn’t know what to think or feel. Our principal requested that we treat Sammy as normal when he returned to school and so we did.
For several months I could not get the image out of my head about Sammy’s Father even though I never met the man. I remember feeling so sad for him and his Mom who I had the chance to meet when I was in fourth grade as she was a class Mother along with my own Mom. Mrs. Baylor was so kind and as nice as one could be and I recall that she had a nervous shake that could only come from a tragedy of losing her husband in that manner. Years later in an ironic twist I would wind up working with Sammy’s Sister-in-Law at an insurance company in New Jersey and we spoke briefly about the father-in-law she never met and the awful tragedy. The frightening feelings were suddenly fresh as the day Mrs. Jones spoke with us at my Second Grade Elementary School class.
I remember cutting out the news article about Prinze’s death from a local Newspaper and pinning it up on my cork-board in my room. I realized years later that it was the budding Journalist in me and the fact that this was the latest “story” at the time that made me feel like a real reporter as the reason for my intrigue and not something weird . My Mother eventually took down the article and out of my room as she felt it was not healthy that I was displaying such a tragic story for all to see.
As Freddie lay comatose in a UCLA Medical Center Hospital bed with blood blotched bandages wrapped around his injured head a few strands of his dark black hair managed to poke through. The sound of sucking air echoed in the dimly lit ICU room as the respirator did the breathing for Prinze. His Mother mumbled the rosary prayer with tearful eyes touching his lifeless hand while the orchestrated rise and fall of Freddie’s chest gave the illusion that he was breathing on his own. In-between the sucking sounds of air was the choreographed beeping sounds of the heart monitor which was a solemn reminder that his it was only beating artificially. Attending physicians would walk in and out adjusting instruments and IV lines to Freddie’s arm, writing down quick notes in his file, none of them offering any words of encouragement. Freddie’s Mom would whisper “God Bless You” as each physician respectfully nodded and scurried out. Each passing minute offered little hope for Prinze as he lay still and flat with no movement forcing the family at some point to possibly make a difficult decision to take him off life support.
Singer and entertainer and close family friend Tony Orlando, also made the trip to the hospital in hopes of standing strong in the prayerful vigil. During a breakdown on Stage July 22, 1977, not long after Prinze’s death, Orlando admitted to a confused audience that he had cradled Freddie’s head at various points of his comatose state. According to People Magazine’s October 1977 edition, Orlando hit a low point trying to come to terms with his kindred spirit no longer being around and what being “famous” really meant. He vowed from that point on to use his entertainment gift to do good for others. Orlando required Psychiatric care after that concert and realized through extensive treatment that he did not want to wind up like his friends Elvis Presley (died August 1977)and Freddie Prinze. To make matters worse, Orlando also lost his Sister at the age of 21 that year to Cerebral Palsy.
At the 33rd hour after the self inflicted gun shot wound to Prinze’s brain, Freddie began to go into cardiac failure. Alarms sounded on the heart machine as the respirator failed to rise and fall completing his artificial breaths. Freddie’s Mother and estranged wife were ushered out of the room so physicians could try and stop the emergency. Nurse Linda Rufkin, pounded her fists on his chest and screamed, “Hang on," but the vital signs grew weaker and weaker. At 1 p.m. doctors declared Prinze dead, ending a vigil kept by his wife and mother. Tony Orlando was in another room when he was advised of the news. Richard Greene, administrator at the UCLA Medical Center, told reporters that Prinze was declared dead after there was “no indication of any central nervous system function.” Prinze’s agent and friend, Paul Wasserman, said: “A doctor brought the wife and mother into a room and broke the news. They fell on the bed and each other, crying.”
The gray ashen skin color began to change to a yellow waxy tinge as Freddie was released into eternal sleep. The body was progressing on schedule into postmortem breakdown as Prinze’s soul circled the hospital room looking down on his Mother, Aurea and estranged wife, Kathy. Freddie’s Father stood behind Aurea with his left hand on her shoulder as she fell to her knees is complete grief. The pain had ended for Freddie and only began for his family as suicide leaves the deepest of wounds that become more cavernous over time. His son Freddie Jr. was only a baby and thankfully too young to know what was happening. An over head light shined lonely over Prinze’s body with darkness filling out the periphery of the room. Aurea’s head shared the light with Freddie as she buried her face into the side of his chest forgetfully being careful of the tubes and IV lines as if they were still keeping him alive. She stood just long enough to kiss the side of his face rubbing the top of his head as if he were an infant whispering to him in Spanish a prayerful blessing. Kathy was next as she and Aurea traded places as they grabbed each others hands to help one another up and then down to the kneeling position next to Freddie. She too whispered to Freddie and kissed him tearfully on the cheek and turned away as the moment became too overwhelming. His Father stood in his same position as where he entered and gave the sign of the cross over his son kissing his four fingers as a farewell then slightly touching Freddie’s uncovered right foot. One of Freddie’s eyes was half open as the other was fully closed signalling that this was truly the end of his life. The nurse who minutes ago was pounding on Prinze’s chest earnestly trying to keep him the physical world was the same nurse who came in to cover Freddie for the final time once she received his mother’s blessing with a simple nod. Tony Orlando greeted all three of Freddie’s family members helping to escort them out the hospital room but for brief moment breaking free to touch Prinze himself for the last time. Kathy doubled back and grabbed Tony’s arm as she sensed his deep grief and was there to prevent him from collapsing. Tony turned around and headed out the door to avoid an impending scene that may further upset his mother. They all walked out together clutching each other tightly with only Freddie’s Father turning for one last look.
Graffitti had become an epidemic in New York City during the 1970’s, particularly in the subway stations and it’s cars. As you drove through Washington Heights streets after the announcement of Freddie’s death someone had spray painted a picture of Jack Alberston’s face, Prinze’s Co-star in “Chico and the Man”, on the side wall of a vacant building not far from the Prinze’s old Apartment. The hospital sea-foam green chipped cement wall once held up a Car Wash but fell victim to hard times like the rest of the neighborhood. Mostly used as a place for the homeless to drink out of paper bags and the brave to stand on the corner and wait for a city bus, it was now however a permanent home to a 1970 copper colored Buick with four bare tires only rims. Someone had parked it there during a fierce snowstorm one evening and never came back for it. The only reason it sat there for so long is that it was probably stolen and even the desperate didn’t want to re-steal it thinking the police were looking for it. The wall was now a wonderful place to display the portrait of Albertson with his signature derby and scruffy mustache highlighted by a caption bubble in which Alberston expressed his sympathy regarding Prinze’s death with the following;
“The kid had everything in the world to live for regardless of his problems. The only thing we can do now is say a kind word for him, a prayer, that’s all we can do."
2/1/77-Old North Church-6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles CA
Family and friends of Freddie Prinze said farewell to the young television performer at the Old North Church in Los Angeles California. The all brick house of worship was a replica of the Christ Church in Boston Massachusetts. The same one that was made famous by Paul Revere’s ride.
“For Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people” Isaiah 56–7
The scripture above was inscribed on a gray slab on the side of the church.
Typical of a warm winter California day, the backdrop to Freddie’s memorial was small mountains amid tall green trees with sprawling acres of grass that went on for acres. The sky was all blue as if the clouds cleared they way for Prinze’s complete ascension into haven. Freddie’s mother dressed in the traditional back dress and dark head wrap as she was cradled by Prinze’s Father as they walked through the church doors behind their son’s casket. His Mother’s eyes were held captive behind a pair of over-sized 1970’s sunglasses afraid to have others view her many tears cascading down her cheeks. Prinze’s Father would take out a handkerchief occasionally wiping his nose and eyes trying to prevent any emotion as a sign of strength for his wife. Tony Orlando spread his arms apart placing each hand lightly around the shoulders of Freddie’s parents almost as a safety net in case one of them should begin to crumble. He too was emotional and was not afraid to hide it. Tony was in pain.
The casket was a brown shiny metal finish with gold handles. A close replica of the actual crucifix and about the same size and weight adorned the outside convex-shaped lid. A gold gaudy coating covered the sculpted body of Jesus with small delicately placed clear diamonds kissing his thorny crown glistened in the early morning California sunshine. A series of red rubies appeared to slide down the face of Jesus acting as his blood droplets pouring down his forehead which signified the appearance of Christ’s suffering. The nails that were visible in Christ’s hands and one through both feet were oak hand-carved-pegs hand painted a dark brown. The design and creation were specially selected by Freddie’s Mother and flown in from a sculptor in Villa La Rogaia, Itlay. The crucifix was carefully affixed to the casket in time for the burial.
The town of Villa La Rogaia, near Lake Trasimeno between Rome and Florence, is known for their sculptors and painters among other cities in Italy. Gianni Colao lived and worked in a small village of Castel Rigone where local businesses flourished. Gianni befriended Freddie Prinze on one of his indulgent vacations to the beautiful countryside. Once Freddie made money from his television show he took his entire family to Europe and spared no expense. Italy was a place he only read about back in his hometown of Washington Heights at Hornsteins Stationary Store. Near the entrance of the store was a rack of travel magazines and a tri-fold laminated pamphlet, “Italy”, was facing out and sticking up when Freddie first noticed it and realized that there was life outside New York City. Similar to his celebrity books he would study, the Italy pamphlet became another obsession of his. Etching notes on school ruled loose leaf paper since the lamination didn’t endure inscriptions of ink or lead very well. Freddie would make a list of all the towns and venues he would want to visit someday. Mapping out his route through rolling mountainside from big city to small country village. Each town had a short narrative underneath about their origin, lifestyle and cultural food. Freddie seemed to predict his future, knowingly short on time, he would be living a life of a celebrity and traveling the world.
Gianni Colao was in the middle of stone carving a life size crucifix with no shoes or shirt on and covered in whitish-gray limestone when Freddie came upon his workshop in Italy. Freddie’s Mother and Wife had stopped at a nearby cafe when Prinze wandered off to explore. A short stumpy balding gray haired gentlemen who was standing on a ladder when Freddie let out a common 1970’s joke;
“Don’t Jump Man”!
Colao nearly dropped his mallet and spike but smiled wide as his mustache became even longer than it’s actual size. He welcomed his new Amercian friend; “buongiorno”.
“Hey man, I think you said ‘Hello’, but whatever. Do you speak any ‘ingles’? Freddie quipped
As Colao made his way down the ladder he threw the mallet and spike to the ground by the time he reached the 3rd step. “Sure, Sure I do” in broken English the sculptor proudly answered Freddie. They spoke for over an hour as Freddie’s new friend showed him his vast collection of hand crafted crucifix's and Jesus statues. “Wow” Freddie was reported to have repeated several times as he gazed at each piece of art with a yearning and thirst to want to try and sculpt his own or at least own some of his. However, no one could have predicted that the only piece he would ever own Prinze would take with him for eternity. When Gianni received word of Freddie’s death he wept for days but was honored to provide his most intricate piece of work which was the crucifix that shielded the outside of Prinze’s casket.
The pallbearers included Paul Williams, a songwriter and Prinze’s business manager, Marvin Snyder, who stood by stunned as the despondent actor pulled a .32‐caliber automatic from a sofa in his apartment and shot himself. Of course, Tony Orlando headed the list of those honored but heart-broken attendees to be carrying the casket of their dear friend to his final resting place. Freddie met Singer Song Writer Paul Williams while performing together on the The Flip Wilson Special, in 1974. They became fast friends and he joined Freddie’s close knit group of musical pals like Tony Orlando.
The first time Williams met Prinze was back stage on the Johnny Carson Show a year before they became friends from The Flip Wilson Special. Williams was on his way to the green room back stage at Carson when he noticed the dark haired tall and slim comedian practicing his routine alone almost speaking in “cult-like tongues”. Freddie was looking at a few beat-up index cards that he would periodically roll with nervousness after briefly taking a look at his notes then looking off to the distance as if he was starring at the audience. Williams didn’t say anything to Freddie so not to interrupt the budding superstar. Momentarily Williams stopped before entering the lounge area observing in silence as he witnessed with admiration the flow of comic genius right before his eyes. He knew Freddie had a gift and looked forward to seeing his career take off. He had no idea that he would become close friends with the young comic let alone lose him at a young age.
Not Easy Being ‘Green’
The “green room” at Carson was small (about 10′ by 35’), plain (two couches, two chairs, an out-of-tune piano), gray and beige walls (not the slightest bit green). Freddie didn’t like to stay in the “hospital-type rubber room” too long before it was time to be called to perform. He observed so many celebrities; Carrie Fisher and Tony Randal to name two, turn all shades of white with immense nervousness almost waiting to be executed rather than be interviewed. As he did on this day, Williams observed Freddie practicing his routine outside the green room as if he was home in Washington Heights hanging in his Apartment complex in the darkened stairway practicing his celebrity impressions. Prinze would tell Williams later that he himself was immensely shy despite the public perception of his outgoing personality that most observed on a daily basis. Being so young, he didn’t feel worthy of being in the company of such big stars so he would rather hide. His good friend and fellow comedian (David Brenner) once told Freddie that he worries for nothing about any of these celebrities who he thought was so perfect because most of them are nothing but “Shmegegge’s”, Yiddish for “untalented” and “petty”. Or, another word Brenner referred to celebrities as was “Shmendrik’s” Yidish for “little worth with an inflated ego”. This still did not calm the nerves of Freddie before performing especially with Carson.
Freddie Prinze’s Tonight Show debut was on Thursday, December 6, 1973, the night his brief career was launched. He was 19 years old and was on stage for 325 seconds. Within nine months, he was the undeniable star. And yet, it almost didn’t happen.
“That night was a very traumatic experience,” says former Tonight Show talent booker Craig Tennis.
“Freddie de Cordova (longtime producer of the Tonight Show) had maybe the worst taste in comics of anyone alive. I guess he saw Freddie Prinze in his dressing room before the show, and he came up to me and said, ‘He’s not going on. I hate the way he looks. Johnny’s going to hate him. I’m canceling him right now.’ Explained Tennis.
“Back then,” continues Tennis, “I had a standard speech I would give to someone we bumped: I would wait until the end of the crawl, and then I would say, ‘We ran out of time. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll get you a new date.’”
The Thursday night show was loaded, so it looked like de Cordova would get his way. Lead guest Diane Keaton, on to promote the upcoming Woody Allen film Sleeper, she was her endearingly goofy self for two segments.
“But then the second guest, Sammy Davis Jr., ran out of things to say after three minutes,” says Tennis, “so de Cordova had no choice but to put Prinze on, hope he’d bomb, and then I’d get fired.”
Johnny Carson teed everything up nicely:
“We have a new young comedian with us tonight, and, as you know, it is a hard commodity to find in this business are young guys who can come out in front of an audience and do not have a great deal of exposure and try to find people who accept what they do. And this gentleman, Freddie Prinze, is just 19 years old and just graduated about six months ago from the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and he works in New York at the Improvisation and a place called Catch a Rising Star …”
Freddie killed it and grabbed the attention of Carson. There was no wavering. At the 326th second, Prinze bowed, and then became the first comic ever summoned to the couch by Carson after his first shot. He sat briefly, then stood up again, as the applause crested to over half a minute. If it doesn’t sound like much, try clapping for 30 seconds.
“You know, there’s no greater thrill for me personally than to have somebody come out here who’s unknown and stand up in front of an audience and absolutely wipe them out their first appearance on the show, coast to coast. You know you’re gonna find a lot of people started on this show, and you can always sense that there’s something there if the audience likes them right away. They gotta like you. A lot of guys do comedy, and they come out, and the audience says, ‘I don’t like him. He’s funny, but we don’t like him.’ You got that nice empathy with the audience.” Johnny Carson
Prinze would appear as not only as a guest on the Tonight Show but he guest hosted for Johnny three times all in 1976:
1/19/76-Guests included Bob Hope and Richard Dreyfuss
6/21/76-Guests included Cindy Williams and Richard Pryor
11/15/76-Guests included Paul Williams and the Amazing Kreskin (Mentalist)
The final appearance as a guest with Johnny Carson was on 9/21/76 where he talked about an upcoming Television Movie “Million Dollar Rip-off” which was to air the next night. This would be the only other project outside of “Chico and the Man” that Prinze would complete before his untimely death.
Reliving Freddie’s Guest Hosting duties for Johnny Carson on “Youtube” you could not help but notice how comfortable Prinze was conversing with the guests and the audience. He was a natural. In fact, he appeared more at ease hosting than being a guest. Who knows how many more times he would have guest-hosted The Tonight Show or even if he would have his own variety or talk show show? Perhaps one day he would have taken over for Johnny Carson and not Jay Leno? The possibilities were endless and he had just begun to catapult into a mega-star. About four months prior to his death, Prinze had signed a multi-year deal with NBC worth $6 million over five years.
As the crowd of mourners settled inside the Old North Church on February 1, 1977, the casket rested at the front of the alter perpendicular to the crowd. Displayed was a swath of white roses prominently covering the length of the casket along with a blessed, white sheet (Pall) with a stitched purple cross underneath. A “pall” is a white sheet of fabric about 6 feet by 10 feet that is designed to cover a casket during a funeral Mass in the Catholic Church. It serves as a reminder of the white baptismal garments a new Christian wears as he or she is welcomed into the fellowship of believers within the church. In a sense, the pall brings the believer full-circle, from the new life celebrated by baptism to the new life a believer experiences through physical death.
Before Freddie’s Mother found her seat in the front pew she pushed her face through the roses to kiss the top of the casket lid as if she was kissing Freddie’s cheek. Prinze’s Father stood-up to make sure his Wife made her way back to her seat safely grabbing her hand in support. On the other side of the aisle in the front row sat Jack Albertston and Tony Orlando who were ready at a moments notice to deliver their eulogies. Orlando was glancing at a small sheet of notes almost as if he was memorizing a new song he was about to sing for the first time. Albertson looked around the church in disbelief and in grief bowing his head down then picking his head up while occasionally wiping his eyes with a bright white handkerchief. He would glance behind him periodically to make small talk with Paul Williams. David Brenner interrupted briefly, lovingly waving to Albertson to acknowledge he had just arrived. Williams turned to wave to Brenner as Albertson smiled slightly to Brenner. Albertson was taking it really hard breaking down slightly just moments before the Reverend made his way to the Alter. Reverend Stanley Unruh of Las Vegas, spun incense over the flower-topped casket in a large gold kettle with a faded gold linked chain wrapped tightly around his aged hand. He made the sign of the cross over the casket as the kettle squeaked with Father Unruh’s deliberate motion back and forth as the smoke billowed out the sides. The crowd was quiet with an occasional muffled cough and sniffle which pierced the heavy grieving air. Rev. Unruh made his way to the Alter holding up his hands and arms open wide as he greeted all of Freddie’s family and friends with an opening blessing.
The eulogies by Albertson and Orlando were raw with emotion hard to listen to as their passion and love for Freddie was emphasized with each word. Alberston spoke of being a second Father or Uncle figure to Prinze feeling a welcomed obligation to guide his new young friend. Ultimately, Alberston expressed a deep sadness for his failure to reach Freddie before his death. He ended his eulogy with walking by the casket and placing his right hand on the edge near the white roses and then stepped down to his mother where he kissed her on her left cheek and mumbled his condolences. Freddie’s mother grabbed Alberston back down after his kiss and gave him a sympathy hug around his neck as he patted her back with his right hand while reaching Freddie’s Father for a handshake. He walked slowly in a daze back to his seat in the front row as Orlando sprung to his feet for his eulogy of his best friend.
Orlando spoke of their brother-like friendship that was cut short and was saddened that he would not grow old with Freddie. He tried to add some humor by creating a situation of how Freddie and he would act as older men. Even Albertson managed to chuckle as the crowd welcomed the light-hearted moment. Orlando ended in tears becoming barely audible as Prinze’s Mother rested her head on her husbands shoulder as she broke down reacting to Orlando’s weeping emotion. Alberston met Orlando half way up the Alter to assist him down the stairs in his grief and as a sign of his support. Father Unruh took control by bringing the crowd back to the realization that Freddie was with God and that his “struggles” (Alcohol and Drugs) were not part of his soul anymore. He encouraged Prinze’s friends and family to carry his loving memory with them as they march through their own journey knowing that they will meet in haven one day. With the closing blessing the Reverend Unruh once again reminded everyone that Freddie Prinze will not be forgotten and that his baby son, Freddie Prinze Jr., will ensure that his memory lives.
Freddie Prinze’s final appearance on Chico and the Man is in an episode called “Ed Talks to God” (Season 3, Episode 18, Air Date: March 4, 1977). It was taped hours before Freddie shot himself and was scheduled to air on the night of his death. After Freddie’s passing, the show’s producers seriously considered cancelling the series. Instead, they established that Chico had left Ed’s garage to go into business with his father, played by Caesar Romero. A new character, 12-year-old Raul Garcia (Gabriel Melgar), was introduced to replace the departed Chico and the show continued until the end of its fourth season in 1978.
Death Becomes Him
The paramedics pulled up to the entrance of “The Beverly Hills Hotel Plaza”, at 10300 Wilshire Blvd , Los Angeles, on January 27, 1977. The urgent call was for a male subject approximately 22 years old with a possible fatal gun shot wound to the head. Vital signs were slight to none. Two attendants yanked the stretcher out of the back of the ambulance with urgent fervor plopping extra pepto-bismol-colored blankets and electronic equipment on top. The female attendant managed the back of the stretcher with one hand on top of the small pillow pinning it against the bags of supplies to keep them from toppling off the sides. The male attendant grabbed hold of the front of the stretcher pulling while it was still in the air from the back of the ambulance before the wheels could make contact with the side walk. An LA police officer greeted them at the entrance along with a Bellhop holding the glass doors open. Other LA PD vehicles pulled up to secure the entrance and eventually a possible crime scene as they were not fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the injured male subject. Pedestrians who had been walking swiftly past the Hotel’s grand entrance earlier were now beginning to slow and stop, then gather as the intrigue began to grow. Before Facebook and twitter there was only word of mouth in 1977. Radio and Newspaper outlets who had paid informants were being alerted about a “celebrity” crime or tragedy which was unfolding. KNBC Channal 4 was the first to arrive as Paramedics were working on Prinze in hotel room 216. Informants were everyday people who worked at Ritzy Hotels, Casinos and Restaurants throughout LA and were paid to contact various news outlets when a celebrity was spotted being belligerent due to over drinking or in this case, a possible murder or death due to an overdose. There was no internet, texting or Facebook to post this information, just good old fashioned pay phones and a pocket full of change. When Freddie first arrived back at his Hotel before his suicide attempt he was high on Quaaludes and alcohol. The Bellhop witnessed Prinze’s condition when he walked through the lobby early in the morning thus surmising a possible drug overdose was taking place back in Freddie’s room due to his initial observation. When the paramedics arrived at the hotel and he knew they were going to room 216 the bellhop reached out to his news contact for his eventual kick-back. Many years later these informants to news outlets became the premise for the television show TMZ.
Nothing to see Here!
The white couch was pooling with Prinze’s blood as his over six foot frame lay slumped over his right arm. Bathroom towels with the monogram “BHH” (Beverley Hills Hotel)were bunched and saturated as well from when the only witness, his agent, Marvin “Dusty” Snyder, tried to stop the progression of the violent injury after eventually wrangling the gun from Prinze’s hand. Lesser amounts of blood spatter were present across the white shag carpet and a nearby American Indian style lamp. Dusty was streaked with Freddie’s blood up and down his shirt and on the front of his pants which was also was caked on the inside of his hands. Police escorted Dusty away from the scene and into another room for questioning. Radio calls interrupted the flow of questioning until the lead detective arrived and asked the officers to lower the volume.
The patterns of blood on Freddie’s agent (Dusty) was consistent with someone who tried to aide a person with a serious head wound. Gathering of bathroom towels is also consistent with a non-deliberate act. In other words, someone who shoots another person doesn’t often worry about stopping the bleeding and grabbing towels from another room. No visible powder burns or residue appeared on Dusty’s hands to indicate that he held the gun while it was fired. In 1977 Police forensics were years away from sophisticated technology we have today, therefore, assessing a crime scene using past experience and common sense was essential. Dusty was quickly cleared of any participation in Freddie’s attempt to shoot himself.
3 Minutes out….
Freddie’s left eye was almost closed while the right eye was more open than the other, signifying that he was alive but not present in the moment. Heavy bandages adorned Prinze’s head along with a breathing apparatus over his nose and manually being squeezed by the female attendant to keep him from expiring. The female attendant continued to manually pump puffs of air into Freddie’s lungs as they rolled Prinze down the elevator out into the street then into the ambulance. Photographers and a few news outlets were gathered by the entrance of the hotel trying to get confirmation on the celebrity they were attending to. With deliberate slamming of the ambulance doors the attendance quickly hopped into the truck and sounded the sirens pulling onto Wilshire Boulevard and heading to UCLA Medical Center (1.2 Miles away 3 minutes with no traffic).
The lead Police Officer began questioning Freddie’s Agent, Dusty Snyder, while Hotel staff cleaned up the blood soaked couch and floor. Suddenly they were interrupted by another officer with important news, a suicide note was found nearby. The note may have been one similar to a note Freddie wrote many times before and tore up or this one was written from a long time ago (even though it mentions Dusty)knowing that he would eventually end his life. Dusty was known to drop everything in the middle of the night and try and console Freddie so indicating Dusty in the note would not be unusual. The note was folded in three parts and written in ink. The following is the message written;
“I must end it. There’s no hope left. I’ll be at peace. No one had anything to do with this. My decision totally — Freddie Prinze. P.S. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Dusty’s here. He’s innocent. He cared.”
Dusty collapsed on the only chair not spattered with blood or knocked over from paramedics and placed his hands over his head as the note was read to him out loud. At that moment he realized there was nothing he could have done to save his client and friend. A sudden feeling of defeat rang through his exhausted body. Dusty realized that Freddie wasn’t just gone on that day (although not officially dead) but that the end had come a long time ago. Probably when he was in his early teens. Fame and fortune most likely prolonged the inevitable not quickened it as most would conclude later. In 1977 when someone stated repeatedly that they were going to kill themselves they would be dismissed as the person wasn’t being serious and that they were just “crying wolf”. However, as we know today, they are not “crying wolf”they are actually crying for help! Any indications of a person wanting to take their own life should be validated and encouraged to go for assistance.
UCLA physicians were informed of Freddie’s grave condition while the ambulance was in route and the driving attendant radioed ahead to the emergency room contact center. Three of the top brain surgeons made their way to Operating Room 12 and scrubbed-in as nurses prepared the sterilized utensils. The hospital doors flew open as Prinze’s gurney crashed through the second set of pliable almost rubbery type doors rushing down a long corridor as the attendants continued to work on Freddie’s breathing barley keeping him alive. As the gurney entered the O.R. amid a waiting audience, nurses were ripping Freddie’s shirt off his body and onto the floor and performing chest compression's to increase the blood floor in and out of his arteries. Prinze was near death and brain surgery was the only answer. The bullet penetrated his brain before emerging from the right temple. Amazingly he survived the impact of the bullet and the two hour surgery that followed. For the next 33 hours Prinze was in ICU where he eventually succumb to his fatal injury and passed.
After his final breath nurses from other floors of the hospital came to pay their respects to the popular comedian. Some two at a time others by themselves kneeling in prayer and overcome by grief. Sure, UCLA Medical Center housed their share of celebrities residents but none as young or popular (before 1977) as Freddie Prinze. The light blue sheet was pulled over passed Freddie’s head by the attending physician and IV lines disconnected as the heart monitor was silenced after it’s 33 hour journey. Prinze’s body lay in State for the next 45 minutes where he was greeted by two large men ready to take him down to the Hospital Morgue. Plastic bags holding his ancillary belongings were placed on top of the sheet as the head of the bed was lowered to be flat and even. Freddie now became just another deceased member of the hospital and tagged a name and number of “1/29/77-Prinze” .
“The Big 5 Sporting Goods” store at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente Blvds. is where Freddie Prinze bought the gun he used to kill himself. A 380 Astra Constable. Described as a great carry gun made by one of Europes’ oldest gun makers(ASTRA). This is a quality double action, exposed hammer semi-auto, with an excellent bore (interior of the barrel), and functions very well. Has about 93% blue (steel finish), with wear only on the high edges of the slide. He loved to play Russian Roulette in front of his friends getting a kick out of scaring them.
Freddie was fidgety at best and could never sit still. Having a gun gave Prinze something he could play around with and kept his hands busy while his mind raced endlessly. He would often speak about being lonely and feeling alone in a world in which he was surrounded by celebrity friends and fans that adored him. The hand gun would give him a sense of power that he felt he didn’t have in his life. The power to end his life or save it. David Brenner (his comedian friend) would have long phone conversations with Prinze about taking a stand and instructing him on how to say “No” to even television executives. Brenner knew that Prinze was physically and emotionally exhausted and that his travel schedule was insane. Freddie was caught between the celebrity persona bestowed upon him and reality. A place in which many famous actors and actresses wind up and often do not survive. Elvis Presley would suffer the same fate seven months later struggling with drugs and exhaustion like Prinze.
The King and I
Elvis Presley and Freddie Prinze shared an unusually similar tragic path in their life where stardom took over their personality along with drugs and alcohol.
The similarities between Prinze and Presley are stunning:
✔ Both had marriages that they cherished but wound up destroying because of their abuse of drugs and their devotion to being famous. Presley with Priscilla and Prinze with Katherine.
✔ Both had one child each, Lisa Marie Presley and Freddie Prinze Jr. .
✔ Both Elvis and Freddie were generous with their friends and family in which they would give more money away then they kept for themselves.
✔ Both adored their Mother’s being only children of Maria Pruetzel (Freddie) and Gladys Presley (Elvis). Elvis was an only child as his twin brother died at birth.
✔ Both Presley and Prinze had fascination with guns. A Shelby County Special Deputy Sheriff badge (serial number 3) was issued to Elvis by Sheriff Roy C. Nixon on October 10, 1970. The first of many law enforcement commissions bestowed upon Elvis. He had an infatuation with law enforcement, and he worked his way up to the ranks at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in his hometown of Memphis and ultimately acquired several authentic badges (as well as actual law enforcement authority) from subsequent sheriffs in Shelby County. This particular commission gave Elvis full status as a law enforcement officer, including the ability to carry a sidearm and make arrests.
✔ Both passed away in 1977 seven months apart. Prinze died in January 1977 and Elvis in August of 1977.
After Further Review
If present day football rules applied in the case of Freddie Prinze’s death, a red flag would have been thrown on the field in protest. A jury in Los Angeles ruled that two insurance companies must honor $200,000 in policies taken out by Freddie Prinze after concluding the comedian accidentally shot himself and did not commit suicide.
Jurors ruled 9–3 that Crown Life Insurance Co. must pay Prinze’s mother, Mary Preutzel, for a $50,000 life insurance policy Prinze obtained Feb. 19, 1975. It also concluded that Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. must honor a $150,000 policy naming Mrs. Preutzel the beneficiary that Prinze took out in August that year.
The jury, however, denied Mrs. Preutzel a $50,000 accidental death benefit from the Crown policy because of a clause that precludes payment if drugs are involved either accidentally or intentionally in the death.
Jurors also ruled that Crown need not honor four subsequent policies, each for $100,000, that Prinze obtained in 1976. By then, they decided, Prinze was using drugs heavily and misrepresented to the insurance company that he was not.
Beneficiaries of those four policies were Mrs. Preutzel, Prinze’s widow, Kathy, his son and two managers.
The jury decided that on the 1975 policies there was no deception about Prinze’s use of drugs because at the time he was not a heavy drug user.
The coroner had concluded that Prinze’s death on Jan. 30, 1977 was a suicide, but the family had contended the shooting was accidental because the 22-year-old actor was under the influence of drugs and may have thought the pistol’s safety was engaged.
The star of the hit comedy series ‘Chico and the Man,’ was said to have been despondent over a separation from his wife and a pending misdemeanor drug charge when he put the pistol to his head.
In 1981 and 1982 the mother, widow and son agreed to accept about $1 million in settlement of their malpractice suits against Prinze’s psychiatrist and doctor. Those suits claimed the doctors improperly allowed Prinze access to a gun and over-prescribed Quaaludes, a powerful tranquilizer.
The money awarded was substantial but not the impetus of the reasons why the Preutzel family appealed the original ruling of “suicide” over “accidental suicide”. They firmly believed that if Freddie would have been of sound mind and body that he would not have chosen to leave his young son behind along with his loving parents. The belief that a heavy influence of drugs and alcohol altered his reality and drove him to kill himself. A surprising verdict knowing that Freddie had written a suicide note? However, it could be argued that when he wrote the note he was under the same influence of drugs and alcohol.
In her 1978 book, The Freddie Prinze Story, Freddie’s mother, Maria, wrote poignantly about her son’s demise:
“The people around Freddie knew his problems. They knew of his bouts with depression. They knew about his court struggles, his marriage problems, his battle with drugs. They knew he was physically and mentally wasted, on the edge of a complete breakdown, yet no one seemed to notice.”
The whereabouts of Freddie’s neighborhood friends from Washington Heights; Chico Sagan, Louis Calderon, Freddie Solar, Feliciano Dias, are unknown since their interview with the Daily News in 1977. They all agreed that Prinze had a knack for making them laugh. Prinze would have been 64 years old at the time of this article and no doubt would have moved from Prince of Comedy to King status. If only.