Now Playing: CHICO AND THE MAN
Rather than bother with full-season sets, Warner Brothers has recently released "sampler" DVDs of episodes from TV series in its vaults, including F TROOP, MAVERICK and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (which has already been released in box sets, so what's the point?). I picked up CHICO AND THE MAN for just $5.99--a bargain at a buck an episode--at Best Buy recently.
CHICO AND THE MAN was enormously popular during its original NBC run in the mid-1970's, finishing #3 in the ratings its first season, right behind the show it followed in the Friday-night lineup, SANFORD AND SON. I watched it then, but I really became familiar with CHICO in the summer of 1977, when reruns were temporarily part of NBC's daytime schedule. It hasn't been seen a lot since, as far as I know, although it has popped up on TV Land and the American Life network.
CHICO comes from a brief period of American television when sitcoms were allowed to be about someting; in this case, the relationship between a charismatic, good-natured Chicano, Chico Rodriguez, played by overnight sensation Freddie Prinze, and cantankerous, elderly Ed Brown, played by Tony-, Emmy- and Oscar-winner Jack Albertson. Ed was a cranky widower who owned and operated a garage in East Los Angeles who was approached for a job by Chico, who disbelieved the neighborhood gossip that Ed was a mean old bastard and decided he was going to become "The Man"'s partner, whether Ed liked it or not. Over the course of their three seasons together, Chico and Ed established a father/son bonding that involved much bickering, a little bit of racial baiting, and a lot of love.
The six episodes represented on the WB disc provide a pretty good example of what the series was like. For me, personally, watching the shows was a very melancholy experience. It was impossible for me to reconcile the talented, happy-go-lucky Prinze we see on the screen and the miserable, depressed, confused young man who committed suicide with a gun just a few hours after taping one of the episodes shown on this DVD.
Prinze was still a teenager when James Komack, the successful producer of THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER and LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, spotted him doing his standup routine on THE TONIGHT SHOW and decided to cast him in CHICO & THE MAN. He and Albertson had wonderful chemistry together, which is evident right away in "Pilot", which really lays the racial material on thick, even in depicting a pair of white cops as bigots who call Chico a "beaner". I'd be interested to know how the two men got along off-screen; it is known that Albertson attended Prinze's funeral.
The other five episodes take it easy on the ethnic gags, for the most part. In "If I Were A Rich Man", a young woman rejects Chico's wedding proposal because she's looking for someone whom she perceives to have more of a future than a garage mechanic, although one wonders whether writer Jerry Ross didn't originally have the white character hesitant to marry a Chicano, but the story point was rewritten.
Chico considers moving out of Ed's garage and into his own place in "Chico and the Van". Jose Feliciano, who composed and performed the delightfully sunny theme song, plays Chico's cousin (and performs the song live) in "Chico's Cousin Pepe". Cesar Romero portrays Chico's long-lost father in "Chico's Padre".
A real heartbreaker is "Ed Talks to God", where Chico prevails upon an old war buddy of Ed's to pretend to be the voice of the Almighty over the garage loudspeaker and convince Ed to attend his own birthday party. What's rough is that "Ed Talks to God" was the final episode Prinze taped. That night or the following morning, he shot himself in the head in front of his manager. He was rushed to the hospital and placed on life support. His family made the decision to pull the plug on January 29, 1977, and Freddie Prinze was dead at age 22.
It sounds like a textbook case of "too much, too soon." He was a barely known but rising standup comic at 19, but the next three years saw him working a lot. In addition to CHICO AND THE MAN, Prinze did a made-for-TV movie, a record album, tons of nightclub dates, several TV appearances on talk shows and variety series. He dated a lot of women, including Lenny Bruce's daughter, and married one, with whom he had a son named Freddie Prinze, Jr. There was also an arrest for driving under the influence of Quaaludes, bouts of depression, an obsession with guns, paranoia, cocaine, an unhealthy physical appearance. I don't know whether he ever appeared stoned on CHICO AND THE MAN, but there's a detectable difference in his appearance and energy level in later episodes.
After Prinze's death, NBC continued to air his remaining episodes of CHICO AND THE MAN. "Chico's Padre" was scheduled to air the night he died, but it was reportedly pulled and replaced with a less emotional episode.
When CHICO returned for its fourth season, Albertson had a new costar. Of course, NBC should have cancelled the show, but the smell of money led them to give Ed Brown a new "Chico", 12-year-old Gabriel Melgar as Raul, an orphan "adopted" by Ed. Prinze's character was written out of the show as having gone to work with his father in Mexico. The audience knew better, though, and found it too difficult to go along with the charade. Also, there was no point to doing CHICO AND THE MAN without Chico. Remember when LAVERNE & SHIRLEY continued without Shirley in its final season?
I don't know whether full-season box sets of CHICO AND THE MAN would be profitable for Warners, but I'm grateful it has at least provided us with these six episodes. A personality as shortlived as Prinze's can be easily forgotten, but the talent and joy he exhibited on CHICO AND THE MAN should be remembered. And by owning this DVD, I always will remember.