The suicide death Saturday of Freddie Prinze, the 22-year-old comic from New York, pierced Hollywood in a way not seen since James Dean died almost two decades ago.
Since Prinze put a bullet through his temple early Friday morning, people in the entertainment industry, from key grips to producers, have been asking themselves why one of the nation's most promising young talents had thrown his life away. Marital problem, legal hassles and the pressures of work all depressed young Prinze, his friends say, but no one seems to know why these factors eventually out-stripped the comedian's ability to cope.
Most deeply kaffected by the Prinze tragedy - outside of immediate family and close friends - have been the young comedians in town who considered the star of the "Chico and the Man" series both peer and model.
"Every unknown comedian in the world he hung out with," recalls Prinze's publicist and friend, Paul Wasserman. "Freddie was 22 years old and the Hollywood establishment didn't hang out with him. He didn't spend much time with Billy Wilder, Kirk Douglas or Frank Sinatra."
Whether they knew him or not, many young comic are taking Prinze's death as a personal tragedy.
"He was hopeful; he was an inspiration," said comedienne Robyn Jaffe, 26, peering sadly out of the window of her West Hollywood apartment. "When it happened to Freddie, it made you reassess your values. Does material and professional success really make it in the long run?"
Jaffe is one of scores of comic who migrated to Los Angeles in the '70s following the footsteps of Freddie Prinze. They hang around The Comedy Store, a nightclub on Westwood Boulevard, hoping to get a 15-minute set. Sometimes as many as a dozen comedians play in one night to the crowds of more than 200 people who pack the tables in the large, black-walled, smoke-filled room. It is here that the young comedians hope to be and here that the mediocre learn the discovered by network star-makers brutal silence of rejection.
Following Prinze's suicide, Jaffe says, she has been in a state of shock. Her mother called from New York to check on her emotional health. Prinze's death, Jaffe explained, is making people question the sanity of comics. "At a party last night," she said, "A guy came up to me and said, spending the last 24 hours wondering "all comedians are sick,' I've been about that - wondering what I am doing."
Reassuring Robyn Jaffe as they listened to news bulletins on Prinze's fading condition was Mike Rapport, a stocky 30-year-old comedy writer.
"Freddie had what 99 per cent of us want - money, sucess, his own TV show," observed Rapport, a friend and colleague of Prinze. "But he always had something missing. I want to make sure that when I make it like Freddie I'm not missing anything."
Rapport, more of a business that a personal friend, describes Prinze as confused and insecure - a man who, even as a star, asked people if they "minded" if he went out to dinner with them. Other friends confirm this assesment and talk about taking him on long walks to keep him from carry out earlier suicide threats.
"He has threatened this (suicide) before, for at least a year," said Wasserman. "He used to say it on the set. But no one ever took it seriously."
Success clearly failed Prinze. Even with a big car, big house and million dollar contract, he always felt himself on edge, say friends, always somehow threatened by the inherent insecurities of show business."I think Freddie really realized his mortality in the business," Rapport remembered. "In four of five years, he knew, you could be forgotten no matter how talented you are. This is a business built on disappointment.
The Press coverage of the Prinze tragedy has angered many of these young comedians. They criticize the emphasis on Prinze's marital problem which has dominated most of the Los Angeles media coverage of the suicide. "The poor woman," Robyn Jaffe said of Prinze's wife, Kathy, "why are they blaming it on her if he was talking about suicide for the past year? She'll feel guilty for the rest of her life."
"Any dirt they could find they stuck "in," complained one comedian who worked closely with Prinze. "It was pure sensationalism.It was really disgusting." The young comic found the rather open speculation about what to do with the "Chico" series in the wake of the suicide particularly distasteful.
But at The Comedy Store, where Prinze played both before and after he achieved stardom, the sense of loss was unmistakable. Other leading comedians, including Gabe Kaplan, Richard Pryor and Jimmy Walker, have built their careers on original and imporisational material first conceived on the Store's stage.
Mitzi Shore, the club's short, black-haired owner, said comedians have been gathering around the club to talk about the death of Freddie Prinze. "He was one of the first of the new breed," Shore explains. "They're all like him - they're better, they're faster and they write everything up there on the stage.
No Comedy Store regular felt the loss more deeply than Danny Mora, a Chicano comedian in his late 20s who played the character Salvidore on the Chico series. At first, Mora recalled, he resented Prinze, who is half-Hungarian, half-Puerto Rican, for taking the role of the Mexican-American Chico. But later Mora grew to respect Prinze for leading the way for all Spanish-surname entertainers.
"It started out as a rather rude situation," Mora said Saturday afternoon in his Hollywood apartment. He opened up a lot of doors for Latino performers. Freddie was an exponent and a pioneer who raised the public's consciousness. And because he was successful he allowed other Latinos to get ahead."
Mora fears that Prinze's death may tempt the entertainment industry to recreate Chico and Freddie Prinze out of the already-established mold. "I hope we don't have a lot of Freddie Prinze imitations - it would be shameful," Mora said. "The industry shouldn't start manufacturing artificial copies just because he is gone physically. His impact is still with us."
Later on, Danny Mora went down to The Comedy Store to deliver a brief eulogy for Freddie Prinze. The other comedians watched silently as they remembered their colleague. Then the lights went on, the performers climbed up on the stage and laughter was heard again in the Comedy Store.