In the autobiographical Why You Crying?, George Lopez, star of the ABC sitcom George Lopez , tells his life story — from the heartbreak of being abandoned by his parents, to the triumph of chasing and finding his dream of becoming a comedian.
Excerpted from Why You Crying (pages 35 to 41), by George Lopez.
The kid from Home Alone had nothing on me.
I didn't know there was a name for children like me until one day I saw a commercial about a latchkey kid letting himself into an empty house after school. Every day, around three, that was me, letting myself in the kitchen door or slipping through an open window.
When you're home alone you find love in other forms and faces. Some kids talk to their toys. Some make up imaginary friends. Others live in imaginary worlds populated with people who don't argue or drink, folks who think nothing of giving you a hug or a kiss or a compliment or a smile. The people I interacted with on those lonely afternoons lived in a box. My electronic family — variety show hosts like Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore — were always inviting funny and interesting people over to their place. Jimmie "JJ" Walker, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin were some of my early favorites, guys me and Ernie would sprint home from school to see. Consequently, we got the comedy bug young, and we knew all the comics — the famous and the not so famous. One day we were cruising Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, and we passed this car going in the other direction. We both shouted, "That's Johnny Dark!" You have to really know your comics to remember — much less to have recognized — Johnny Dark, but he was a fixture at the Comedy Store in the late seventies with the likes of David Letterman, Elayne Boosler, Jay Leno, Steve Landesberg, and Pryor. We whipped a U-turn in the middle of Laurel Canyon and followed Johnny Dark all the way home. I jumped out and approached him in his driveway. "I am George Lopez," I said, "and I want to be a comedian, too." He told us to wait outside, went in his house, came back with two eight-by-tens, autographed one for each of us, and just hung out and talked shop. He was so cool, and it was cool to be in the presence of a professional comedian. It was in that electronic box in the summer of 1974 that I met my new best friend. Over time he would become my guardian angel, the one who watched over my career from above. And today, in the strangest of ways, I have become the keeper of his flame.
I was all of thirteen when the promotion came on, a classic sixty-four Chevy with pom-poms and the antenna and the little dog in the back window followed by the words "Coming this fall." From then on I'd sit in front of the TV, watching it like a hawk, waiting, hoping just to see the promo again, to see the kid, this Chico with the bedroom eyes, who wore denim like we did, cool as shit with that droopy mustache, long hair, and lover-boy body. My idol… Freddie Prinze. Think Robin Williams in the eighties or Chris Rock today, and that was Freddie Prinze Sr. in the early 1970s. Words like "creative genius" get tossed around a lot in my business, but they're actually on target when it comes to the comedic talents of one Frederick Karl Pruetzel, born June 22, 1954, to a Puerto Rican mother and E. Karl Pruetzel, the Hungarian taskmaster Freddie never really liked. He grew up up in Washington Heights, New York — "a slum with trees," he called it — studied music and karate, and dreamed of fame and fortune. His idol was Lenny Bruce. Eventually Freddie got his break earning stand-up shots at New York landmarks like the Improv and Catch a Rising Star, mesmerizing people with his comedic and imitative talents. Before long he got the call every comedian died for back then — a guest spot on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Freddie laid Johnny out that night, so much so that he was offered a coveted seat on Carson's couch. That contributed to his meteoric rise and led to an audition in the summer of 1974 that would change — and eventually help end — his life.
Other Voices — Ron De Blasio, Freddie Prinze's manager
I am on the road with Pryor and we're going to Chicago and we finish a show and Richie says, "C'mon, we're going to a club tonight."
I say, "I'm not going to a club."
He says, "No, you're going to come to a club. We're going to Mr. Kelly's to see this guy, a friend of mine, a comic."
I say, "Who's this guy?"
He says, "Motherf-----, just c'mon."
"What's he like?"
"He's Spanish, sort of, from New York — he's like me."
"He's like you?"
So we walk into Mr. Kelly's, and I know the club pretty well. Bette Midler broke out there. Streisand played there. Mr. Kelly's was one of those places you had to play.
So I see Freddie and he's funny. His language is a little salty for a nineteen-year-old kid, but the jazz people like him — it's an old crowd, old Chicago patrons, drinking, couples, some not with their wives, Frank's Chicago. So I sorta liked him, and we go outside, and Freddie says to me, "So, you saw my act, would you consider representing me?"
Without batting an eye I say, "Represent you? I don't even know if I like you."
And that was the end of that.
Then the show gets on the air and he's out here. I pick up a copy of Time magazine and the title of the article is "The Prinze of Prime Time."
So I start to ask around about Freddie, and hear there're lots of problems, the least of which is his manager. Freddie calls me up once more and we chat, but again nothing really comes of it. Then one night, late at night, Freddie says, "Listen, I have an attorney, David Braun. Do you know him?"
I say, "Yeah, good guy, straight shooter."
"Listen, I've worked it out whereby for the length of the contract I have with my manager I will pay him what I have to pay him, so I have to have a reduced commission on what I pay you. But just as soon as that obligation is over, I'll pay your full management commission."
"Okay," I say, "sounds fine."
Freddie Prinze was the thing that really brought me and Ernie together. We had both seen Freddie perform on the Midnight Special. He was wearing bell-bottom jeans and a rhinestone shirt, and me and Ernie were both bitten. Up to that point, the only Latino on TV we could relate to was Pepino on The Real McCoys. Freddie Prinze was our Beatles, and that show was our Ed Sullivan Show. To me, Freddie was the second-generation Desi Arnaz. Desi was the brains behind I Love Lucy, the man Bob Hope once described as one of the smartest people he'd met in Hollywood. Desi invented the three-camera format that sitcoms still use today, but because of the language barrier — not to mention the color barrier — never got the recognition he deserved.
Given Hollywood history, it's no surprise that the star of Chico and the Man wasn't Freddie but rather veteran Oscar-winning actor Jack Albertson, who played Ed Brown. A crotchety old man, Ed was the cantankerous owner of an auto garage in a run-down — or overrun, in Ed's mind — East LA barrio. Freddie played this wisecracking Chicano named Chico Rodriguez, Ed's eventual partner in the garage.
At least that was the premise on paper. No different from a hundred other oil-and-water sitcoms. Except in this case you had James Komack as the executive producer and an actor like Albertson who was willing to share the stage with a comet like Freddie that streaks across the sky once every decade or so.
The show premiered on September 13, 1974. The first words I heard were, "Chico… don't be discouraged … the man he ain't so hard to understand," written and sung by the incomparable José ("Light My Fire") Feliciano. In the very first scene, a rumpled Albertson is mumbling and grumbling his way down the stairs from his room above the garage. He kicks a water can out of the way for good measure. The world was changing, and Ed Brown wanted nothing to do with it.
He shuffles over to the cash register where, it turns out, he keeps a glass stashed and pours himself an eye-opener before delivering his first shot of the show: "In those days Mexicans knew their place — Mexico." Watching that first episode today I can still see what lured me in, what lured America in. From the very first time Freddie literally rode into Ed's life on the back of his bicycle and said, "Oh, buenos días," Freddie sizzled and smoked and proved the perfect foil for Albertson.
"I won a Silver Star in Vietnam," Chico says.
"Where?" counters Brown. "In a crap game?"
"I want my place in the sun," says Chico.
"Then go to the beach."
They stayed that way for much of the next three years, most of the time on Friday nights between eight-thirty and nine. To a thirteen-year-old it was a "good" show; to an adult, Komack & Co. offered a lighthearted but pointed look at family and cultural and social issues of the time. Like the time a young Spanish-speaking pregnant girl arrives at the garage, and Ed assumes that Chico is the father, or the time Ed gets the wrong idea about what Chico and his girlfriend were doing in the back of his van; or in another, for pure laughs, Ed becomes convinced he's lost his touch as a mechanic.
With a supporting cast that included Scatman Crothers, Della Reese, and Charo, and guest stars like Shelley Winters, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jim Backus, the show was a smash from the start, rising all the way to number one in the ratings. Over time, the opening credit sequence slicked up a bit — the shots of the LA barrio became hipper — and so did the billing. What was once "Introducing Freddie Prinze" soon changed to "Also Starring." As year one turned into two and three, Chico moves in with Ed, and Ed falls in love with Chico's aunt Connie. At the same time, Americans fell in love with Freddie. No one more so than me. One day I sat down and wrote a letter to NBC asking, in my best penmanship, to please, please, send me two tickets to a studio taping in Burbank of Chico and the Man. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later an enveloped arrived addressed to me. Inside, a letter and two tickets to the show. It was like winning Lotto.
"I want to go," I told my grandmother. "Please take me."
She said nothing, so I counted the days until, finally, it was time. I still see her in the kitchen and me asking, pleading, begging her to take me. And her turning and saying, "I'm not going to take you. We're not going anywhere." There's crying, and then there are tears that tear a thirteen-year-old's heart out. I lost a piece of mine in the kitchen that day.
Yet, in a strange way, from a distance I drew even closer to Freddie as he skyrocketed to fame, and phrases like "Loooking Goood" and "Ees not my job" exploded into pop culture: Freddie jetting to Vegas for sold-out stand-up gigs, recording a comedy album, major guest shots on everything from Dean Martin Comedy Roasts to the inaugural ball for President Jimmy Carter in Washington, DC. Overnight, comedic fame and fortune mixed with another combustible fuel: major heartthrob status for the Tiger Beat and Sixteen crowd and the intoxicating scent of cover stories in both Rolling Stone and Playboy. It was while on vacation that Freddie met the woman who, for a while, would help him handle celebrity, the increasing tug-of-war for his time and talent. He and Katherine Cochran were married in August 1975 and later had a child, Freddie James Prinze, in March of 1976. By then, it turns out, Freddie was drowning bit by bit, his marriage faltering, his mind altered by drugs and distracted by a breach-of-contract lawsuit by a former manager.
I knew everything there was to know about him. F---, I was Freddie.
His picture hung on my bedroom wall. Day after day I stared at it, thinking, I can be a comic. I can do what Freddie is doing. I want to make people laugh.
Excerpted from Why You Crying? by George Lopez. Copyright © 2004 by Encanto Enterprises, Inc. and Lights Out Productions, L.L.C.