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Chico and the Man

Chico and the Man was a sitcom which ran on NBC from September 13, 1974 to July 21, 1978, starring Jack Albertson as Ed Brown (The Man), the cantankerous owner of a run down garage in the barrio section of East Los Angeles, and introducing Freddie Prinze as Chico Rodriguez, an upbeat, optimistic Chicano street kid who comes in looking for a job.

Ed doesn’t want Chico’s help, in fact he distrusts all Chicanos. A hard-drinking widower, he refuses to fit in with the changing neighborhood and has alienated most of the people who live around him. Ed uses ethnic slurs and berates Chico in an effort to get him to leave. But Chico sees potential in the old man and sneaks back in at night to clean up the garage and move into an old van that Ed has parked inside. When Ed sees all the effort Chico has put in, he slowly warms up to Chico and thus starts the relationship. Ed grows to see Chico as a son, although he will deny this fact on many occasions. The chemistry between Jack Albertson’s “Ed” and Freddie Prinze’s “Chico” was one of the leading factors in making the show a hit in its first two seasons. It started in the top ten and never left there over those seasons.

The show was created by James Komack who produced other shows like The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Freddie Prinze was discovered by Komack after he appeared on The Tonight Show in December 1973. Komack thought he would be perfect for the part of Chico Rodriguez. This caused a stir in the Mexican-American community, who thought the part should have been played by a Chicano (Prinze was half Puerto Rican). Therefore, as the show progressed, Chico's background was altered to being Mexican on his father's side and Puerto Rican on his mother's side (with a nod to Freddie's Hungarian ancestry in the same line which stated these facts, as Chico remarks in his Hispanic accent, "...and my grandmother speaks a little Hungarian!"). The Mexican-American community also complained that the show used too many ethnic slurs, but this was the age of Norman Lear and All in the Family. Fans of the show saw the ethnic jabs as a part of the endearing, if acerbic, relationship between “Chico” and “the Man”. As Chico once fondly put it, Ed was a minority himself, the barrio’s “token white man”.

The "Hungarian side of the family" was also mentioned in a tear-jerking episode during the first season, in which Chico plans to leave Ed. Keeping his half of a childhood bargain, Chico's cousin Carlos has invited him to come be the head mechanic in his used-car agency in New York. In another reference to Freddie's background, Chico had spent part of his childhood there following the death of his mother, being raised by his Aunt Connie (a character who appeared in two other memorable episodes). Chico attempts to explain his situation to Ed by portraying it as the dilemma of his distant cousin in Hungary, torn between the farmer for whom he now works and whom he has grown to love, and another farmer who has offered him a better job. It is in this scene, and throughout the rest of this episode, that the real love between these disparate characters is made manifest for the first time, a fact on which Carlos remarks when he releases Chico from his promise. This love remained, along with the superb comedic timing of its stars, among the driving forces in the show's popularity.

Another of Chico and the Man’s formulae for success was the casting of its supporting characters. Characters like Scatman Crothers as Louie Wilson, Ed’s friend and garbage man; Bonnie Boland as Mabel, the mail lady; Isaac Ruiz as Mando, Chico’s friend; Ronny Graham as Rev. Bemis; and Della Reese as Della Rogers, Ed’s neighbor and landlady, added to the flavor of the ethnicity of the neighborhood and the garage. By the second season, Ed begins to see that he is a part of a bigger world (though he continues to complain about it), even acquiring a girlfriend (Flora, played by Carole Cook) who nearly gets him to the altar.

At the start of the third season, however, the reality of Freddie Prinze's drug use began to intrude upon the comedic fantasy of ethnic harmony. From the moment he comes on stage several minutes into the first episode (in which Chico moves out of the garage into a roach-infested apartment), he looks haggard and much older than his 22 years--a fact that the writers explained by having Ed complaining before Freddie's entrance that Chico has been staying out too late at night. In the two-part episode that followed -- which introduced landlady Della Rogers -- his weight loss became quite evident, and it has been rumored that Della Reese's presence was an attempt to take some of the focus off of Freddie. Later in the season, an episode in which Chico became a professional boxer seemed to take a different approach -- Freddie was often shown shirtless, muscles rippling as he punched a heavy bag. In a tragic twist, this was the episode that producers chose to run on the night of January 28, 1977, as Freddie lay dying from a self-inflicted gunshot. They were concerned that the episode originally scheduled for that night -- in which Cesar Romero portrayed Chico's long-lost father -- would be too hard for fans to take under the circumstances.

In the last episode to star Prinze, which was filmed just hours before he shot himself -- ironically titled "Ed Talks to God"-- there are many scenes in which Prinze appears to be "out of it," although it has also been said that he was always sober while on the job. In particular, when Ed's old army buddy is pretending to be God, speaking over a PA system in an effort to convince Ed to attend his own birthday party, Freddie sits beside the other actor on the couch, seeming not to be paying attention to what is going on around him. In the final scene, when Ed reveals that he knew all along that his buddy and Chico were in on the "God" ruse together, Freddie picks up the knife beside the birthday cake and holds it to his own throat, inviting Ed to use it in revenge. To his legion of fans, the airing of this episode months after Prinze's death was more disturbing than the tear-jerking reunion with Chico's father could ever have been when they still had hope that Freddie might survive.

A void was left with the death of Prinze. The producers toyed with the idea of cancelling the show, but opted for trying to replace the charismatic young comic. So as to write Chico out of the script, they had the other characters make comments about the fact that he had gone to visit his father in Mexico. Fans knew the truth, of course, and many were disappointed with this "cover-up" of the facts. An effort was made to find a new Chico, but the season finished out with episodes based on the other characters in the show. Early in the fourth season, a new "Chico" was introduced. Instead of an adult, the producers brought in 12-year-old Raul, played by Gabriel Melgar. His first appearance came when Ed and Louie go on a fishing trip to Tijuana and find the Mexican orphan hiding out in their trunk on their return. At the end of this episode, Ed is putting Raul to bed and accidentally calls him Chico. Raul corrects him and Ed remarks that, "You're all Chicos to me." Ed finally adopts Raul, only to have Raul's overprotective aunt--played by the Latin singer Charo--come from Spain and try to become a part of the "family" as well.

The most poignant note in the otherwise dismal last season was a two-part episode in which Raul discovers his predecessor's belongings in the old van. Ed catches Raul playing Chico's guitar and smashes it on the van in anger. Raul decides Ed doesn't love him anymore and runs away to Mexico. Ed goes after him and finally explains to Raul that Chico died, but really doesn't say how. For the fans of the show, this seemed to put closure to the fate of Prinze's character. Even so, Chico and the Man was never able to pull in its accustomed share of the audience in its final season. Many critics attributed this to the now-missing chemistry between Albertson and Prinze; others felt it was because the show's unique premise of hard-won ethnic and generational equality and admiration had been compromised by the use of a child actor who lacked Prinze's strong personality. Perhaps it was mainly because James Komack had envisioned Chico through the lens of Freddie's stand-up comedy style. Whatever the reason, the most loyal fans seemed to abandon the show after his death, and the producers finally pulled the plug at the end of the fourth season when the ratings fell to their lowest levels.

In addition to those already mentioned, notable guest stars throughout the run of the show included (in no particular order): Tony Orlando as Chico's look-alike, the ex-fiance of a hostile woman he wants to date; Jose Feliciano (who wrote and sang the theme song) as Chico's womanizing famous-singer cousin Pepe Fernando; Sammy Davis Jr as himself; Shelley Winters (who had appeared with Jack Albertson in "The Poseidon Adventure") as the owner of the local bakery, Shirley Schrift (her real name); Jim Backus of "Gilligan's Island" as Ed's friend who uses him as a "beard"--pretending to be playing cards with him when cheating on his wife (who was played by Audra Lindley, later Mrs. Roper of "Three's Company" fame); silent-film actress Carmel Myers as a former star who has fallen on hard times, brings in her car for repairs, and stays in the garage while looking for work; George Takei (Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek") as Ed's supposed long-lost son from his time in Japan during WWII; Cesare Danova as Aunt Connie's Spanish aristocrat boyfriend, the Count de Catalan, in the second episode in which she appeared; comedian Joey Bishop as an inept robber; Bernie Kopell of "The Love Boat" as a plastic surgeon; Rose Marie, formerly of the "Dick Van Dyke Show", as a CB radio enthusiast with whom a lonely Ed connects on New Year's Eve (incidentally, this was the only holiday episode done during Freddie Prinze's lifetime, and he died only a few weeks after it aired); Penny Marshall, later of "Laverne and Shirley" and movie-directing fame, as a waitress; football star Rosie Greer as himself, Della's date for a charity benefit dance; and Larry Hovis of "Hogan's Heroes" as a customer in the second episode of the first season. Though little else was heard from her in later years, Jeannie Linero deserves mention for appearing in several episodes as one of Chico's more constant girlfriends, nurse Liz Garcia. (A sidenote: several of Chico's girlfriends were members of this profession. In the first episode of season three, one was played by Dee Dee Sescher, who later appeared on another of James Komack's big hits, "Welcome Back Kotter".)

Unlike many other shows of that era, Chico and the Man was only shown in syndication briefly in a few markets. After 23 years of lying in the vaults, TVLand resurrected it briefly in 2001. Occasional episodes continue to air on that cable channel.

Scatman Crothers, Freddie Prinze, and Jack Albertson

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