While Freddie Prinze Jr may be the Hollywood heartthrob of the 1990s, let’s not forget about the senior Prinze. Freddie Prinze Sr used his life on the mean streets of Washington Heights to make a very funny stand up act. From there it was the inevitable sitcom, and that’s when something happened that no one—except those close to him—could imagine happening. It was a tragedy of the worst kind, and fans were left wondering: How could someone so funny end his life so suddenly? Let’s take his life one fact at a time and see where everything went so horribly wrong.
Freddie Prinze Sr. Facts
1. He Was German
Freddie Prinze became well-known as a Latin celebrity, but his name at birth may surprise you. When he was born—on June 22, 1954, in New York City—he was Frederick Karl Pruetzel. If that name sounds German to you, it’s because it is. While his mother—Maria de Gracia Graniela y Ramirez—was from Puerto Rico, his father was a German immigrant named Edward Karl Pruetzel.
Mom doted on Prinze and wanted only the best for her little boy—but sometimes she had some strange parenting methods.
2. It Was Random
Prinze’s introduction to performing was completely random. His mother enrolled him in ballet classes, but she didn’t do it for the dance lessons. She sent him to the classes for a startling reason: He was a little chubby. Mom thought that the classes would help her son lose weight. What she didn’t realize was that the classes would also begin her son’s journey into show business—and ultimately his sad end.
But mom wasn’t the only one who paved the way for Prinze’s rise to fame—dad had some special talents of his own.
3. He Took After The Old Man
Prinze’s father knew how to play the piano and also knew his way around a joke. His jokes must have been pretty good too, because at the age of four, Prinze took them as his own. He memorized his dad’s jokes and repeated them to anyone who would listen. Prinze also followed his father by learning to play musical instruments: the piano, guitar, and drums.
Prinze’s dad was a born entertainer—but he was hiding a dark secret from his past.
4. He Forgot About Her
Prinze’s father was not always able to take care of his family, and it was because of a dark secret from his past. One afternoon, when Pruetzel was with his first wife, she left him in charge of their five-year-old daughter Alice. Pruetzel was so focused on the chore he was doing—painting the front steps—that he forgot about Alice. What happened next, almost destroyed Pruetzel’s life.
5. It Was A Nightmare
When Prinze’s father realized he’d forgotten about taking care of his daughter, he ran around frantically trying to find her. When he got to their swimming pool, his worst nightmare had come true: Young Alice’s lifeless body was lying at the bottom of the pool. Pruetzel could never forgive himself, and he struggled to be a good father and husband for the rest of his life.
With no strong father figure in the household, Prinze had to step up when the neighborhood around them got rough.
6. It Wasn’t Safe
Prinze’s mother remembers how rough not only the neighborhood was, but even their building. She says on three separate occasions someone robbed her on the elevator. Prinze took his mother’s plight to heart and promised her he would drop everything and come directly home after school and protect his mother as she came home from work.
Prinze was doing whatever he could to protect his mom. But it wasn’t just his mother’s safety he had to worry about…
7. He Wasn’t The Funniest
Prinze had a full-time job keeping his mother safe, but he also had to do things for his own safety. In order to survive in Washington Heights, Prinze had to join a gang. Prinze would later say that he wasn’t the funniest guy in his hood, because those guys ended up in prison. If Prinze didn’t have talent and a strong parent like his mother, he could have ended up there as well. He also had his own determination to thank.
He wanted to succeed and he’d do anything to make that happen.
8. He Snuck Around
Prinze loved the ballet classes and he wanted more. He went behind his parents’ backs and switched high schools. He secretly started attending the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts—the one made famous by the movie and TV show Fame. Here, he did more ballet, but also added drama classes to the list. He quickly got a role in the school’s production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park.
The part called for a Jewish phone repairman, and Prinze was a little confused as to how he should play him.
9. He Used Her Voice
Prinze was over the moon about his first on-stage role, but he wanted to make the part his own. That’s when he got permission to make his character Puerto Rican. They changed the character’s name to Jose Perez—but there was an issue. Prinze, having been born in the US, didn’t actually have an accent. No problem, he just copied his mom’s voice, and the crowd loved it.
It wasn’t just, on stage, however, where he learned he could entertain people. It was somewhere much smellier.
10. He Stunk It Up
There are few places as disgusting as a boys’ washroom at a high school. This was, however, where Prinze got his first real taste of what it was like to be a performer. Prinze had a ball performing for the male-only student audience in the foul-smelling boys’ restroom. He was still in high school, but now he was getting a “taste” of what some comedy clubs would probably smell like.
11. He Worked Hard
Prinze was not from a rich family, so he had to work part-time for spending money. He worked as an usher after school, and then started going to comedy clubs after that—sometimes staying out until three in the morning. What this meant was that Prinze was rarely at school for the first few hours. He was getting ready to start a career, but his school didn’t know that and punished him for his absences.
Prinze would eventually get his revenge for the punishment—but not quite yet.
12. He Took A Big Step
Prinze went right from working the boys’ washroom to working at comedy clubs. He dropped out of school and started at places like The Improv and Catch a Rising Star. In his act, he made fun of his upbringing—but not accurately. He called himself a “Hunga-rican” and explained that he was half Puerto Rican and half Hungarian. I guess the more accurate “Germa-rican” just wasn’t funny enough.
Prinze was making a name for himself—and then he had to actually make a name.
13. He Wanted To Be Royal
Around the time he was calling himself “Hunga-rican” he decided on his stage name. He chose Prinze, but this did not come from his mother, whose maiden name was Graniela y Ramirez. No, the name Prinze came from his desire to be a part of the royalty of comedy. Sadly, he couldn’t be king because that had already been taken by comedian Alan King.
Prinze happily let Alan be the king—but he wasn’t so happy about his high school.
14. He Was Bitter
Prinze never did get a diploma from the High School of the Performing Arts. He used to joke that he just got a piece of paper saying he attended classes there. Later on, when he became famous, the high school wanted to honor him with a diploma. For Prinze, it was too little too late. He had become bitter and said no thanks. He didn’t want that school to get any credit for his rise to fame.
Prinze was playing clubs and using his Puerto Rican background to get big laughs. But how did Puerto Ricans feel about being the brunt of his jokes?
15. He Got Back To his Roots
Prinze was getting famous around New York City and he got a manager. The manager had a great idea: Why not let Prinze do his act in his mother’s home country of Puerto Rico. Soon, Prinze was flying to the Caribbean island. His mother, however, wasn’t sure if his jokes would be funny in Puerto Rico. Prinze told his mom to relax and said that he knew what he was doing. It turns out, he should have listened to mom.
16. They Didn’t Like Him
A lot of Prinze’s act was making jokes about being Puerto Rican, while living in America. The American tourists in Puerto Rico loved his act, but the locals did not. The serving staff at the hotel gave him dirty looks, and he got bad reviews from the local press. They thought he was making fun of Puerto Ricans.
Prinze returned home with his tail between his legs. He decided to focus his career on audiences that appreciated his humor.
17. He Beat Him To It
Prinze was getting famous but not getting rich, so he still needed a roommate to make ends meet. One roomie was none other than future Tonight Show host Jay Leno. Leno says that he actually taught Prinze how to drive. What’s weird is that Prinze, as we’ll soon see, would be on The Tonight Show stage well before Leno ever would.
But before he could do the Tonight Show, Prinze had to make his debut on TV.
18. He Was One Of The Last
With Prinze as his official name, Freddie started to get famous as a comedian. After working the clubs for a few years, he got a one-in-a-million chance. Jack Paar had hosted a talk show since 1957. When the show was winding down, Prinze got the invite to be one of the final episodes. This was his first time on a TV show, and the audience loved him.
This was, however, just a stepping stone. There were bigger things coming to Prinze on the small screen.
19. He Got To Sit Down
His appearance on The Jack Paar Show led to an appearance on an even bigger one: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. When young new comedians appeared on the show, they usually did a set and then got off the stage. But this is not what happened to Prinze. On his 1973 appearance on the show, Carson called him over to the couch—one of the greatest honors a young comedian could receive.
Carson obviously liked Prinze, but would he feel okay about giving him his job?
20. He Took His Job
Prinze felt pretty comfortable sitting up on the stage with Johnny Carson, and the producers thought so too. They thought he looked so good that they offered him a chance to take Carson’s job—well, at least, to sit in for him when he was on vacation. This was a huge deal for a young comedian. With this TV fame, the inevitable happened: Prinze got the attention of some very beautiful women.
21. She Said No
In 1973, Prinze met Pam Grier, who was a star in the world of blaxploitation films. The two started dating, and it got kind of serious. In fact, the 19-year-old Prinze wanted the 24-year-old Grier to get pregnant and also be his wife. Grier considered the offer, but there was something standing in her way: Apparently, she thought Prinze suffered from depression. For this reason, she didn’t see Prinze as father—or even husband—material.
Prinze was surprised that Grier thought he was depressed. Sure, he had a lot of pressure with being famous. But depressed? Time will soon tell us that Grier was on to something.
22. He Was A Big Deal
Even though Prinze was still just 19 years old, he was getting too famous for his own good. The powers that be thought that something had to be done about it. What happens to most comedians that get too big? Somebody gives them a sitcom. Prinze’s was Chico and the Man. The situation of this sitcom was a relationship between a cantankerous old mechanic and Chico: a Mexican-American played by Prinze.
Starring in a sitcom at 19 was pressure enough, but the audience’s reaction just caused more stress for the rising star.
23. He Got Into Trouble
Prinze’s catchphrase “That’s not my job” caused him no trouble when it was part of his stand-up act. Once it got to television, however, it ruffled some feathers. What some people didn’t like was that it played into a stereotype: The cliche of the lazy Hispanic. The producers didn’t want any trouble so they made him change his catchphrase to “Looking Good”, which became the title of Prinze’s first comedy album.
There was, however, another, more serious problem with Chico and the Man.
24. He Wasn’t The Real Thing
In Chico and the Man, Prinze plays a Chicano—a Mexican American. Because his background was Puerto Rican and not Mexican, some people thought that Prinze didn’t deserve to play the role. Apparently, his accent was wrong and so were his mannerisms. Meanwhile, Prinze was working long hours just to make the show a success. Criticisms like these were not making his life any easier—or less stressful.
25. It Was All Too Much
In just a few short years, Prinze had gone from growing up poor in Washington Heights to having his own sitcom. He was also receiving hate mail from people who thought a real Chicano should be playing his role. It was all a little too much to take. To deal with this sudden rise to fame—and the hate mail—Prinze needed something to help him deal; it came in a bottle.
26. He Needed Help
Around this time, Prinze went to see his doctor because of two things: anxiety and depression. The thing is, Prinze didn’t really want the doctor’s advice, as he already knew what he wanted from the doctor. He wanted Quaaludes. The doctor didn’t hesitate. He wrote a prescription for 100 300-milligram tablets. In a few short years, these pills would be against the law, but for now, this was all totally legit.
The pills seemed to work, and Prinze was ready to take his new celebrity lifestyle out for a spin.
27. She Wore A Fur Bikini
Of course with all the fame, there came women. One blip on his radar was Raquel Welch. She was 14 years older than Prinze, so he’d likely had one of her posters on his wall. You may remember her as the one wearing a fur bikini in the dinosaur movie One Million Years BC. Imagine being Prinze and dating someone you’d drooled over as a child. It must have rocked his world.
But instead of enjoying his time in the spotlight, Prinze went down a rabbit hole of despair.
28. He Lost Out
Chico and the Man was super popular, and Prinze was hoping for a magazine cover to solidify his popularity. There was another sitcom that was doing well at the same time: Welcome Back Kotter. Future Pulp Fiction star John Travolta was in the cast of Welcome Back Kotter and the magazine decided to go with Travolta over Prinze for the cover.
Most people would just say: you win some, you lose some. But Prinze didn’t take it that well…He went crazy.
29. He Marched Up To His Home
Prinze could have just bided his time and waited for the moment when he would be on the cover of a magazine, but he didn’t. Instead, he seethed with anger. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he had to act. Prinze had previously purchased a pistol, and he allegedly took it and marched right up to Travolta’s home and rang the bell. Luckily, Travolta wasn’t home and Prinze returned home.
Prinze was spiraling out of control. What he needed was some stability in his life.
30. He Tied The Knot
Even though Prinze was pulling stunts like the one with Travolta, he managed to find love. He had been dating Kathy Cochran for a while and the relationship seemed to be serious. In 1975, the two decided to become husband and wife. The wedding took place in Las Vegas, Nevada, and it was a small ceremony held in his suite at Caesars Palace—just for family and close friends. By March of the following year, the couple had a baby: Freddie Prinze Jr.
Prinze finally had what he wanted: a family. So why was he still in despair?
31. He Lay Still Beside Her
Life should have calmed down for the new father, but Prinze continued to feel stress and continued to take pills to deal with it. Some nights, Cochran would wake up and see Prinze lying beside her in bed. She described him as a lifeless body. He was so still that it freaked her out. Sadly, nothing she tried to do could change his behavior. He was on a collision course and no one could stop him.
32. He Got Taken In
On November 5, 1976, Prinze was driving on the Sand Diego Freeway. A patrolman noticed that Prinze’s car swerved, so he pulled him over. What could have been a short interaction became a time in the station because of Prinze’s sense of humor, which the officer did not share. Prinze realized he needed someone to bail him out. He didn’t want to upset his wife, so he called his assistant Carol Novak.
Unfortunately, it was his wife who picked up the phone.
33. He Made Headlines
Soon the news of Prinze’s run-in with the officer had made headlines. To make matters worse, Variety mentioned something about Quaaludes being involved. This was the last thing Prinze wanted. He didn’t want his fans to know about his drug use, and he didn’t want to anger his wife. This was the end for Prinze and Cochran. They were soon separated and later divorced.
Prinze had strong ties to his family. When he was left on his own, his behavior turned bizarre—and dangerous.
34. He Freaked Them Out
Prinze loved to freak out his friends and his favorite way was by scaring them with a weapon. On more than one occasion, Prinze pulled out a pistol and waved it around. Then he started going one—very dark—step further. He started pointing the loaded pistol at his head like he was playing Russian Roulette. At this point, Prinze still had the safety on the pistol, so it was just harmless fun.
Still, it was a troubling habit—one that would eventually have fatal consequences.
35. He Did A Test
Obviously, Prinze wasn’t doing so well emotionally. Because of this, he took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the results were not good. The doctor who read the test said that Prinze was suspicious, disoriented, and hostile. He predicted that Prinze would eventually need to stay in a hospital or even need “intensive psychiatric outpatient treatment”.
If this were a pass-or-fail test, it was clear that Prinze had failed. But he had to keep working—it was all he knew how to do.
36. The White House Wanted HIm
With all this going on in his life, Prinze got a call from the White House. Then-president Jimmy Carter wanted him to perform at his pre-inaugural gala. It was a great honor and Prinze was excited. A few days before the performance, Prinze met up with his childhood friend Ray Andrade. While they were eating lunch, Andrade noticed that Prinze was popping one pill after the other.
At the restaurant, Andrade made a stunning prediction.
37. He Wanted To Live
While sitting across from Prinze and watching him pop pills, Andrade gave it to Prinze straight. He said, “If you don’t stop, you’ll kill yourself”. Prinze had respect for Andrade and listened to him. Later in the day, when they were discussing capital punishment, Prinze said that no one had the right to end their life. That, “as long as you are alive, you have hope”. Andrade was happy to hear Prinze say those words—but was Prinze saying how he really felt?
After his performance at the White House, however, Prinze had other thoughts on the subject.
38. She Tried To Cheer Him Up
On January 28, 1977, Prinze called his ex-wife Cochran. After his call with her, it was clear that Prinze was very depressed. A friend said that she called Prinze to try and cheer him up. On the phone, she tried to make him laugh by doing his own impression of boxer Muhammad Ali. Nothing seemed to be able to get Prinze out of his funk. Prinze spent the next hours calling friends and family.
What was he looking for?
39. He Checked In On Him
That same night, Prinze’s manager, Marvin Snyder, got word that Prinze was not doing well. Snyder, who went by the name Dusty, went to visit Prinze in person. While Snyder was there, Prinze also contacted his family and some friends. It seemed that Prinze was reaching out to many people—but only he knew the tragic reason.
40. It Was Under The Cushion
Snyder watched Prinze hang up the phone after one of his calls. Prinze calmly pulled something out from under a cushion. Snyder saw that it was his pistol. Snyder was well aware that Prinze liked to goof around with it, so maybe he wasn’t that alarmed. But what happened next would haunt him forever.
Prinze took his pistol, pointed it at his own head, and pulled the trigger. This time, however, there was no safety feature to save him. Instead, there was a loud bang.
41. They Gathered Around
They rushed Prinze to the University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center. Prinze’s family gathered around and stayed at the hospital for hours, devastated and crying. At one point, one of the surgeons working on Prinze came out and said something that broke the hearts of the family. He said, “It’s all in God’s hands”. A few hours after that, Prinze’s mother and a priest entered the room and did the last rites.
42. He Was Gone
Just after 4 o’clock on Friday morning, Prinze’s brain stopped showing activity. It was then that the doctors and family had to make a heartbreaking decision: To keep him alive or to let him pass. They eventually opted to pull the plug on the respirator. By 1:00 pm on Saturday, Prinze was no more. He was just 22 years old. Prinze’s mother, in particular, was absolutely devastated.
43. It Was Just Beginning
Prinze’s life may have been over, but there were still some things to deal with. The big question was: Did Prinze really mean to end his life? This was important for his family’s need for closure, and for their need for money. If Prinze’s fatal deed was self-inflicted, his estate would get no insurance money. If they ruled it an accident, the well-deserved money would be theirs.
Now, they just had to prove it.
44. It Was An Accident
The first point to consider was that Prinze had a history of joking around with his pistol. As mentioned, he often brought out and played a pretend game of Russian Roulette. In every case before this one, he’d had the safety on. On the Wednesday before his passing, Prinze was in his apartment with his assistant Novak. Here again, Prinze pulled out the pistol. Novak said she was afraid of it, but he wouldn’t put it away.
That was when Novak got the scare of her life.
45. There Was A Loud Bang
Prinze walked away from Novak still carrying the pistol. Novak sat in the living room certainly wondering what Prinze was doing. Suddenly, she heard a loud bang. She ran to see what had happened and found a chilling scene: Prinze was lying on the floor and there was a hole in the wall. Novak, of course, assumed the worst and then Prinze got up from the floor. Prinze laughed and said, “You thought I shot myself”.
Clearly, Prinze was not that good at handling his pistol. Was it possible that he just forgot to protect himself with no safety mechanism? This seems like a reasonable theory—except for one very important point.
46. He Wrote A Note
If the fatal shot was an accident, then why had Prinze written a note? Yes, it turned out that Prinze had written a note where he explained that it was his intention to end his life. With that alarming detail, the insurance company had certainly won. There would be no money for Prinze’s estate. Prinze’s family wasn’t, however, through yet.
The next way to look at it was, why did Prinze have access to a pistol? Where did he get it in the first place?
47. They Helped Him Buy It
There is some confusion about where Prinze got the weapon. Prinze had a friend who was another sitcom star with a catchphrase. This was Jimmie “JJ” Walker from the CBS show Good Times, who had the catchphrase “Dyn-O-Mite”. It turns out that Walker was with Prinze when he bought the pistol, and so was longtime friend Alan Bursky. Some people say that one of these guys should have stopped Prinze from getting a weapon.
The other thing to think about was Prinze’s access to medication.
48. He Was Over-Prescribed
Obviously, Prinze was getting his Quaaludes from somewhere, and he was getting way too many of them. This ended up being the way Prinze’s family dealt with the insurance company. They asserted that Prinze would be alive today if his doctor had not prescribed so many pills. In the end, a jury decided that Prinze’s life had ended because of a medication-induced and accidental incident. Because of this, the insurance company had to pay $200,000 to Prinze’s family.
This, however, was not the end.
49. They Settled
Prinze’s family then went after their son’s doctor and psychiatrist. They charged them both with malpractice because of the Quaaludes and something else: They thought that one of the two doctors should have had the sense to get Prinze’s pistol taken away from him. To avoid a huge malpractice suit, the two doctors settled out of court with the family. Together, they handed over $1 million.
Of course, it still wouldn’t bring Prinze back. There was, however, still a junior.
50. He Followed In His Footsteps
Once the dust had settled about Prinze’s estate, Cochran took her child, Freddie Prinze Jr, and moved to New Mexico—far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. When Prinze Jr got a little older, his grandfather took him aside and gave him some baffling advice. He said that Prinze Jr should get into show business. That he should finish what his father couldn’t.
It seemed that grandpa was tempting fate. Did he want his grandson to meet a similar fate to Prinze?
51. He’s A Different Man
Of course, the big worry was that Freddie Prinze Jr would have inherited some of his father’s problems and that pursuing a career in show business might go horribly wrong. Thankfully, the opposite seems to be true. Prinze Jr is almost boring compared to his father when it comes to off-screen problems. In fact, he’s been married to the same woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar for over two decades.
He says that listening to his dad’s album—in spite of his horrible demise—still cheers him up.
52. He’s A Different Man
Obviously, living in the shadow of his father’s tragic end wasn’t easy for Freddie Prinze Jr. He almost never spoke about his dad for most of his life, but he’s recently began to open up on the subject. He remembers no one wanting to talk about his dad with him, as they didn’t know how to explain Prinze’s death to him.
Since he didn’t know anything else, Prinze began to blame himself for his father’s suicide, asking himself, “Why wasn’t I good enough for you to stay?”