first role had only four lines, but in 1994, when 18-year-old
Freddie Prinze Jr. landed a job on the hit sitcom Family Matters,
he knew just what to do. "I went to my father's grave in
Forest Lawn," he says. "I put my hand on his plaque
and I said, 'Thank you. I hope you're watching now. I hope to
make you proud.'"
now 20 and busting out in a pair of new movies, would make any
father's chest swell. He doesn't drink or do drugs and has a steady
girlfriend. He is a Hollywood rarity: big name, small ego, a winning
combination of sweet and tough, and he's getting solid reviews
playing Claire Danes's boyfriend in To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday,
which stars Michelle Pfeifferr. Prinze, says Mark Waters-who directs
him in the dark comedy The House Of Yes, slated for a '97 release-is
along with the gift came a looming ghost that he has never quite
shaken. On Jan. 29, 1977, when Prinze was just 10 months old,
his father, Freddie Prinze Sr., despondent over his recent divorce
form Kathy Cochran and high on prescription drugs, died from a
self-inflicted gunshot wound. The death unsettled Hollywood and
shocked fans. Only 22 at the time, Prinze was at the top of his
form. Known to millions of viewers for his infectious grin and
bubbling good humor, the Hungarian-Puerto Rican actor played a
sunny Latino garage mechanic on the sitcom Chico and the Man.
He was also a model of super success for a generation of comics
including Jay Leno, and his short life and tragic end became,
like those of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, a cautionary fable
about the dangers of celebrity. "Freddie will always be 21
to me says Leno, who once crashed in Prinze's apartment when both
were struggling young stand-ups. "He never got to be an adult.
He was like a classmate who got shot in 'Nam. It was just Freddie
with the large-screen TV and the state-of-the-art video games
that are necessities of life for his generation, Prinze Jr.'s
North Hollywood house, which he shares with two other people,
is decorated with mementos of the father he never knew. There's
a photo of his dad in his cozy bedroom and a framed copy of his
1975 Looking Good comedy album in the hallway. What he knows of
his father comes through friends and his mother, who was married
to Prinze Sr. for two years and now lives in Las Vegas, where
she works as a real estate agent. "She told me about how
much he loved me, the way his face would light up when he held
me, about how he called me 'Pie.' my nickname says Prinze. "She
told me I brought him a lot of joy as a baby."
a while it seemed as though Prinze would be spared the aftershocks
of his father's death-and the daily temptations to follow Dad's
wild ways. His mother moved with her 4-year-old son from Los Angeles
to Albuquerque, where Kathy's parents lived. There Freddie could
be just Freddie instead of Chico's son. And there, his mother
hoped, people wouldn't befriend him because of his proximity to
stardom or because they wanted something. In the shadow of the
Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque was the kind of place, Prinze says,
"where I could have a normal life of playing Little League
baseball, soccer and taking swimming lessons." New Mexico
was far from the drug culture of L.A. "My dad taught me one
of the, most valuable lessons in the world through his death,"
says Prinze. "Because he accidentally killed himself while
using drugs. That's why I'll never use them."
iron hand, swathed in velvet, guided Freddie's childhood. Money,
at least, was not an issue. In 1982 Kathy and Freddie Sr.'s mother,
Mary Preutzel, sued the psychiatrist who they claimed had given
Prinze access to the pistol he used to shoot himself and an interist
who they said had overprescribes the tranquilizer Quaalude. In
out-of-court settlements the family received nearly $1 million.
But a different kind of security , mattered to Freddie. "When
I'd fall to the ground, she'd pick me up." he says of Kathy.
"When I was scared, she'd tell me everything would be okay.
She just loves me so damn much. She never quit on me.
did Don Sandoval, father of Freddie's best friend, Chris. Prinze
adopted Sandoval as a surrogate dad and turned to him for advice
and hugs. "He's like another son I didn't have," says
Sandoval, 49, an office supply company manager. Still, Freddie
missed having a father of his own. "It was very frustrating,"
he says. "It hurt growing up. As I got older, sometimes I
became angry because almost everybody I knew had an old man except
me. That wears on you after a while. It becomes like a rock that
you have to push up a hill, which eventually rolls you over."
Albuquerque's La Cueva High School, Prinze cut classes and rarely
studied unless something ignited his imagination, like reading
aloud from Oedipus Rex. Then, says his 12th-grade literature teacher,
Patsy Boeglin, "I think everybody could see his passion."
Although Kathy objected, acting eventually became an obsession.
"My mother didn't want me to go down the same road as my
father," he says. (Now, though, she supports Freddie's choice.)
he persevered. After graduating he took acting lessons and moved
to L.A. "Some people didn't think he'd make it and he'd be
back in a few month," says Nick Werner, a close friend. But
he hung on living with a friend of his mother's while he went
to lots of auditions. "I felt so alone," he says. "I
spent a lot of nights crying. I had no one to talk to. But after
six months I literally felt the hand of God on me. I dropped to
my knees and cried. A hole was filled. I felt love like I had
never felt before. And things started to fall into place.
bumping around in minor roles on TV, Prinze seems to have found
his calling on the big screen. When the 6'1" brown-eyed actor
walked onto the Yes set, costars Genevieve Bujold and Parker Posey
exclaimed, "He's so adorable!" But that doesn't mean
he's self-assured. He flubbed his love scene with Tori Spelling,
who plays his older brothers fiancee. "I kissed her eye.
I kissed her tear," he says with a smile. "I couldnt
get the dress undone. I'm not smooth with women at all.
not, but he's already spoken for. The love of his life is 18-year-old
Kimberly McCullough, whom he met through a friend. She played
Robin Scorpio on General Hospital until last August, when she
left to study film at New York University. Says Freddie, who came
to Manhattan to visit her last month: "I can only describe
her as an angel. I can't stop thinking about her."
the newfound love and a budding career, thoughts of his father
are never far away. "I know one day I'm going to be the best
father in the world," he says. "Me not having a father
makes me want to be a great one. I have so much love I wanted
to give him, and I'll be damned if I don't give it to a child
© 1996 People Magazine. All rights reserved.