My Life as a Couch Potato: The Spuds Have Eyes, Part Two
by Dawn McElligott
The year 1974 found me California Dreaming most of the time. I was eager to begin my career as a TV executive. I didn’t bother informing my parents of these ambitions. I knew they’d weigh me down with the same arguments that have paralyzed so many aspiring TV showrunners before me: “You’re nine years old; you have to finish fourth grade and you haven’t written a darned thing!” Perhaps I hadn’t written anything because the times, they were a’changin’ and I didn’t know how to respond.
By the mid-1970s, all the supernatural shows that had inspired me to write had been cancelled. The audiences wanted more realistic fare. To create a sitcom, realism would have to be balanced with humor.
Fortunately, a grownup TV executive, James Komack, had already been developing new material. His efforts were undoubtedly informed by his experience as an actor, director, producer and standup comic.
In his 2009 memoir, “Cheech and Chong: the Unauthorized Autobiography,” Tommy Chong wrote that Komack had followed his act for three months and started crafting a series on some of their sketches including “Old Man in the Park,” and “Pedro and the Man.”
Originally, Komack invited Cheech and Chong to be in the show, focusing the series on a Chicano and a Nisei, (a person of Japanese heritage). Komack must have been deeply disappointed when Cheech and Chong eventually opted out of the project.
Undeterred, the former producer of “The Courtship of Eddy’s Father” swapped out the Nisei for an elderly WASP. Soon after, academy award winner, Jack Albertson, was cast as the old curmudgeon, “Ed Brown.”
After Freddy Prinze’s appearance on “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON,” Komack invited him to audition for the part of Chico Rodriguez. According tomadefortvmayhem.com, Prinze competed against four other actors. Komack held out for the actor with the best chemistry with Albertson and chose Prinze.
A month after Nixon’s historic resignation from the Presidency, “CHICO AND THE MAN” debuted on September 13, 1974 on NBC. The show made its own history as the first sitcom set in a Mexican American neighborhood.
It opened with scenes from an economically depressed community but the people appeared far from glum. They talked, they laughed; life went on. Jose Feliciano, a star in his own right, sings the theme song beginning with “Chico, don’t be discouraged ….” The choice of Feliciano announces that Latinos are on their way up and this is a quality production.
In the pilot, cantankerous Ed Brown does try to discourage Chico’s attempts at working for him. Brown employs shouts and racially insensitive remarks. Chico’s reaction is unexpected. He’s calm, realizing that Ed’s remarks indicate more hurt at past experiences than anger at him.
The pilot draws attention with a puzzle. The audience is curious about Chico’s persistence in partnering with bigoted, Ed Brown. Viewers in an already youth obsessed society wonder what the hot, young Latino sees in the old man. Good comedies will exhibit universal truths the audience can appreciate. People far from Los Angeles, with no Hispanic heritage, tuned in every week to see how this apparent mismatch would work out.
Everyone has a difficult, elderly relative. Neighborhoods and workplaces were becoming more culturally diverse. “Chico and the Man” presented something viewers knew they had to forge: mutual respect with people who seem different.
Along with M*A*S*H and “Good Times,” the show managed to find humor, even in miserable situations. The aforementioned chemistry between Albertson and Prinze stunned audiences. They were seeing a different kind of magic, made all the more delicious by its setting, a grimy garage.
“CHICO AND THE MAN” also benefitted from the irrepressible optimism and charm of its protagonist, “Chico Rodriguez.” The show was an instant hit. I had a schoolgirl crush on Freddie Prinze.
Sadly, the actor suffered from depression and drug abuse. On January 28, 1977, two months after my 11th birthday, Prinze shot himself in the head, dying the next day. The nation was shocked and heartbroken by the death of a talented young entertainer and father at the age of 22. For decades, the show’s greatness seemed eclipsed by the tragedy.
Approaching the 40th anniversary of Prinze’s death, the time may have come to separate the show from the star’s demise and appreciate it as a program making a significant contribution toward TV history. In creating the show, James Komack spelled out the ingredients for a successful sitcom: research, tenacity, timeliness, diversity, talent, chemistry and, evident in every line of dialog, every action, every shot, love.
James Komack died in 1997. Still, thinking about what he created, I sometimes find myself crushing on him to this day.