Two conflicting characters make for some great comedy. Think Laurel and Hardy, think Fred and Ethel, think Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. And for a short time in the 70s, Chico and the Man. Portrayed by Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson, respectively, the popular sitcom debuted in 1974 and followed the story of a cranky caucasian garage owner and his smooth-talking Puerto Rican mechanic. And for a few seasons, we not only laughed at their antics, we learned that the most unlikely of bedfellows could become friends.
Chico and the Man was the first TV series to be set in a Mexican-American neighborhood, bringing tension in the midst of laughter by giving audiences another look into everyday situations. Ed was a hard-drinker, who after the passing of his wife began to alienate all of those around him. Despite having a shop in a Chicano-heavy area, he distrusts all of them, including Chico, who he berates with ethnic slurs to try and get him to leave. Slowly, however, he sees the effort Chico puts into his work, and his heart begins to soften, giving the two a father-son like relationship, even if Ed would never admit it.
Chico and Ed weren’t the only characters the show had to offer: there was the garbage man, Louie (Scatman Crothers), whose friendship with Ed and snappy one-liners like, “Put out your can, here comes the garbage man!” won the hearts of TV viewers. Then there was Mabel, the mail carrier, and Ramon, Chico’s friend. As the show progressed, Reverend Bemis holy-rolled himself into the sitcom. Della, played by the inimitable Della Reese, was Ed’s feisty landlady and local lunch-cart owner who took on old man Ed in verbal duels that kept audiences tuning in every week to see what was said next.
From its get-go in 1974, the series was a hit for NBC, bringing praise for vaudeville veteran Albertson, and for newcomer Freddie Prinze, whose stand-up comedy routine couldn’t have prepared for the humorous, yet touching performances he would give that helped solidify the show’s broad-spectrum success. With his winning combination of personality and good looks, Prinze soon found himself on the covers of magazines across the country. Plus, his Chico and the Man catchphrase, “Looking gooooood!” was on the tips of tongues everywhere, inspiring the title of his 1975 comedy album, Loookin Good. The show’s popularity proved enough to have all the stars come out of the woodwork for guest appearances, such as Tony Orlando, Star Trek’s George Takei, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jose Feliciano (the composer of the show’s catchy theme song).
Just after the start of the 1977 season though, fans of Chico and the Man and Freddie Prinze mourned the loss of his life to an apparent suicide, just hours after taping an episode where Ed is tricked by Chico and one of his army buddies into thinking he’s talking to God. The episode that was set to air the night of his death was one TV execs figured might be too hard for fans to watch, so they put on an alternative episode where he becomes a professional boxer. Months later, NBC aired the “Ed Talks to God” episode, which proved somewhat traumatic for fans, as Chico offers a knife to Ed so that Ed could exact his revenge against Chico.
With Prinze gone, the show’s producers considered cancelling the series, but instead decided that Chico and the Man could pick up the pieces, as they were, and bring in someone knew. Though many have felt that this was the moment the series ‘jumped the shark,’ in its fourth season the show introduced 12-year old Raul. Discovered by Ed and Louie on a fishing trip in Tijuana, Mexico, Raul climbs into Ed’s trunk – a stowaway that was discovered upon their return. As Ed puts Raul to bed, he mistakenly calls Raul ‘Chico,’ which Ed defends with “You’re all Chicos to me.” Soon, Ed adopts Raul, calls him Chico, and finds out that Raul’s overprotective Aunt Charo, a Spanish entertainer, found Raul and wants to be a part of his new family.
Chico and the Man was never able to pull out from under the death of Prinze and the loss of comedic chemistry between he and Albertson. Gone were the massive audiences, and by the end of its 77-78 season, the show was wrapped up – only to remain as a nostalgic syndication favorite in the coming years. Today, the chemistry between Ed and Chico is still “loooookin gooood” as ever, bringing smiles to the faces of those catching it for the first time, and those who fondly remember.
If you were a fan of Chico and the Man, we hope you’ll take a moment to share your memories of the sitcom, and its star Freddie Prinze, in our comments section.