“Chico and the Man” made an early impression in the world of 70s sitcoms
Set in the vibrant barrio of East Los Angeles, the show is centered around the unlikely friendship between Ed Brown (played by Jack Albertson), a cantankerous garage owner, and Chico Rodriguez (played by Freddie Prinze, Sr), a lively, ambitious young man.
The storyline drew its charm from their generation gap, cultural differences, and mutual dependence, which forms the bedrock of their evolving relationship.
The show’s success, however, wasn’t just due to its well-crafted humor and engaging character dynamics. It was one of the first mainstream American television shows that featured a predominantly Latino cast. At its heart, “Chico and the Man” was a pioneering sitcom that dared to delve into cultural and social issues with a light, comedic touch.
The magic of Freddie Prinze, Sr
It’s impossible to talk about the show without acknowledging the phenomenal performance by Freddie Prinze. A stand-up comic with undeniable charisma, Prinze’s portrayal of Chico, the street-smart, aspiring entrepreneur, struck a chord with audiences.
His chemistry with the equally excellent Jack Albertson, who played the gruff but lovable “Man,” was a key ingredient in the show’s recipe for success.
Tragically, Prinze’s life was cut short, and his sudden death during the show’s run was a devastating blow. The show decided to continue without him, a controversial decision that affected the show’s ratings and morale — and, in the end, the sitcom lasted only one more season.
Despite its early conclusion, “Chico and the Man” managed to create a lasting legacy. It broke new ground by bringing Latino culture into American living rooms, and its exploration of themes such as racial and generational tension, combined with its comedic charm, made it a standout sitcom of the 1970s.
“Chico and the Man” might have been a product of its time, but its humor and heart have kept it fondly remembered to this day. Prinze’s name also lives on thanks to the successful acting career of his namesake son, Freddie Prinze, Jr, who was not yet a year old when his father died.
Read on for a profile of the 70s sitcom that introduced the cast and characters shortly after the show debuted in 1974.
‘Chico and the Man’ ratings high, but stars not awed (1974)
By Arthur Unger, Green Bay Gazette (Wisconsin) November 24, 1974
A 20-year-old newcomer to show business and a 40-year veteran made it to the top of the ratings charts recently as NBC’s “Chico and the Man” took the No. 1 spot. It was a rapid rise for the new show, but Freddie Prinze is as used to rapid rises as star Jack Albertson is to slow and steady growth.
“Hunga-Rican” is what Freddie Prinze calls himself — his father is Hungarian and his mother Puerto Rican. [Modern-day editor’s note: Apparently Prinze was actually part German, not Hungarian, but changed his backstory a bit because he liked to make the “Hungarican” joke.]
Freddie made his national appearance first on Jack Paar’s last show, then switched to Johnny Carson, where he was spotted by the producers of “Chico,” and signed during his first year in the spotlight.
Jack Albertson, who won a Tony on Broadway for “The Subject Was Roses” and appeared most recently in “The Sunshine Boys,” has been a familiar face in movies and TV shows for four decades. The now secure show is taping episodes for the remainder of the 1974-75 season in California.
‘Chico and the Man’ actor Freddie Prinze new to the business
Talking about life and show business Prinze says, “My mother, the Puerto Rican, wanted me to be into music, so I learned to play the guitar by ear. Then she stuck me in ballet school, which of course I hated, but wound up taking it for four years. And when I went to the New York High School for the Performing Arts, I took drama.
“The last few years, I started doing standup comedy in nightclubs. Now I am back to acting. Maybe soon I’ll be doing ballet again. Whatever comes, I am ready.”
Ready for the objections from Mexican-Americans who may resent an actor of Puerto Rican descent playing a Chicano?
“I don’t expect much objecting. The attitudes are only slightly different of course — for the Chicanos, this was once their country, and in a way, they are trying to get it back for themselves. Puerto Ricans are newcomers to the mainland.”
Executive producer and creator of the series, James Komack, has made certain there are enough Chicanos on the staff so the accent is made acceptable to Mexican-Americans, and the ethnic gags not objectionable. The associate producer, Ray Andrade, is active in Justicia, a Latin civil rights organization.
The man is bitter, not bigoted
“Chico and the Man,” according to Albertson, is not really a show about a bigot. “I play Ed Brown as just a bitter old man who hates everybody because he’s alone in the world. Everybody who comes to the garage is open for insults. He has a love-hate relationship with Chico.”
Prinze isn’t bitter; it’s more like bemused amusement. “What I like about the show is that Chico is always pointing out the blind spots in Ed’s make-up. He tries to keep him from drinking, for instance. And sometimes he turns on Ed and tells him he said something that wasn’t very nice.”
The attack comes from both sides, and it’s not out of anger. As Albertson says, it’s just pointing out the inadequacies of thinking.
“Yes,” Albertson says, “These are two normal problems of life. Their major problem is just getting along with each other. That’s why I think this show has more going for it than most it points out that two people with different backgrounds, and even a generation gap to separate them, can manage to get along With each other.
“The Chicano aspect has never been touched before in television comedy. We are the first really American-developed situation comedy of this type. After all, ‘Sanford and Son‘ evolved from the British ‘Steptoe and Son,’ and ‘All in the Family‘ from the British ‘Till Death Do Us Part.’ We are more than just an abrasive comedy. I think the show is warm and touching.”
How do Prinze’s people react to Chico? “The young Latins like what I do. The old people — well some of them would rather nobody knew they’re in the country at all. ‘Don’t make trouble! Don’t let them know we’re around!” But the kids like the idea of somebody like me being up there, visible. I guess it’s part of a cycle.
“The black people had their wave of comics Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor. Now you’re seeing more Latins like Liz Torres and Jimmy Martinez. My father, who is a tool-and-die maker, is a frustrated comic. He tells me I’m doing everything he ever wanted to do.”
Season 4 of Chico and the Man with Gabriel Melgar