Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pop History Moment: The Death of Freddie Prinze

On this day in 1977 one of the brightest young comedians in the United States died...

Freddie Prinze was just 22 and on top of the world - having made such a sensation at the age of 20 in Chico and the Man opposite Jack Albertson that his swansong would find him performing at the inauguration of US President Jimmy Carter - when it all came crashing down. Sudden fame and an influx of money escalated his drug use, which eroded his marriage to Katherine Cochran (mother of his baby son Freddie Prinze, Jr.), and twin obsessions with the assassination of JFK and watching Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver probably didn't help, although surely they were neither the cause nor the effect of any downward spiral merely its manifestation.

Having just received a restraining order, forbidding him contact with his wife and son, Prinze filmed what would his the last episode of the show - the one in which Albertson's character Ed talks to 'God'*. Then, the day before he died, Prinze holed up in his room at the Beverly Comstock Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and started calling his family, friends, and colleagues to say goodbye. In his words, 'life [wasn't] worth living' without his wife and child, even though in those terrible days before rehab he seems to have forgotten that her decision to leave him was predicated only on his drug use. One colleague, his manager Marvin 'Dusty' Snyder, rushed to his side and tried to reason with him; Snyder was unable to stop him, however, putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger while high on Quaaludes.

Prinze was rushed to UCLA Medical Center and placed on life support, from which he was removed after emergency surgery failed to save him. It took years, but his mother Maria finally got his cause of death changed from 'suicide' to 'accidental death'. Whichever cause took him, the stigma hardly matters now; surely it only matters that he's gone and that if it had all gone down just five years later a place like the Betty Ford Clinic (opened in October 1982) might have saved him.

*Actually his old Army buddy, talking through a PA system.

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