Remembering Freddie Prinze: Q&A with Jose Sonera

I will never forget the day that Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I was a kid, a regular viewer of Freddie’s sitcom, Chico and the Man, and a huge fan. Back then, it was probably the worst day of my young life. Freddie, who was only twenty-one, didn’t seem to be an unhappy man; he seemed happy, he was someone you’d want your sister to marry. No matter what ethnicity you were, you wished he was your brother. He seemed kind of like America’s best friend. I still cannot really believe it. After his death, he just vanished from a culture that collectively couldn’t handle his tragedy, and so friends who are just a few years younger than I am have never heard of him. They might have heard of his son, who had a little fame in the ‘90s.

I’ve watched his show from time to time since then, and I’ve listened to my copy of his comedy album. It all still holds up well. He was funny; he was a good actor. I like to believe that his shooting was an accident, as the insurance company ultimately determined. I wonder what would be different if he had lived.

On Saturday, I took my family to see Jose Sonera’s one-man show, Prinze, at the Sheen Center in Manhattan, which imagines Freddie performing at one of his last gigs, at the Improv, and confiding to us backstage. I couldn’t be happier to see Freddie remembered, and, while Sonera doesn’t sidestep Freddie’s tragedy, I was glad that his comedy remained the focus throughout. 

Sonera was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the show, and about Freddie, for Audere Magazine. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. — Steven S. Drachman

Drachman: I was twelve years old when Freddie died, and I still remember the trauma I felt when I learned the news. To watch his performances today, I have to suspend disbelief. Do you think it will ever be possible to disconnect his work from his tragedy and just laugh and enjoy his comedy?

Sonera: I say yes. I think of people like Robin Williams – just recently I was watching Mrs. Doubtfire, and I was laughing and enjoying it, and I was able to disconnect his tragedy from his comedy and his work, and I think the same is with Freddie. I’m able to remember him for his humor and his life and how alive and charismatic he was. I hope people are doing that with the show.

When did you first become aware of Freddie and his work, and what drew you to his story? Was your interest based on his work itself, or on his story and tragedy?

I started doing standup when I was in my twenties, literally coming out of LaGuardia High School [for the Performing Arts], and someone made a comparison at a comedy club. He said, You remind me of Freddie. And at the time I had no idea who [Freddie] was, and when I learned about him, immediately I was just falling in love with the guy. There were just so many coincidences. We were both raised in similar backgrounds, Puerto Rican mom, literally the same neighborhood, we went to the same high school and his humor really appealed to me. It was something I had only heard in my household up to that point. Freddie made what I thought was personal humor in my family universally appealing. Almost immediately I felt this need to tell his story. It’s taken me a long time, but we’re here.

What is Freddie’s legacy for American culture, and what does he mean to you personally?

I just know that he sort of he tapped into a whole personal nerve with me, and he just connected in a way that no other comedian, no other entertainer for that matter, had ever connected with me before. It just became very personal, he almost feels like a family member that I never had, like a cousin or something, in a weird way.

When you think about Freddie’s “library” of comedy routines or his performances on television, what stands out as most meaningful to you?

If you look at the Dean Martin roasts, you look at that panel, you have Don Rickles, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, all these comedians, and he’s the only Latino guy up there, and it doesn’t even phase him. He’s just part of the club. There was something about him, he was just universally accepted. It didn’t matter that he was brown, or wherever he came from, he’s one of us. And that always appealed to me, his confidence, his poise. It’s just how he carried himself at such a young age. I know that I wasn’t like that, at that age. When you look at him on stage, he’s just still and in control.

Who helped your work on the show?

I realized early on, this is going to be a journey that I have to take on my own. I was inspired by many solo shows like John Leguizamo, including Ghetto Klown, History for Morons, Freak. And then Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays. Audra MacDonald played Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, even Chazz Palminteri doing A Bronx Tale. In a way, my class was other solo shows. One of my favorite solo performers is Sarah Jones, she is a masterclass when it comes to solo shows. And I drew a little bit from all the solo shows and I came up with this piece myself. It was important for me to include his material, his comedy and then fill in the in-betweens, what we, the public, didn’t know.

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To what extent were you creating an interpretation and a character in your performance of his standup routines, to what extent were you trying a recreation of a Freddie Prinze performance, and what went into that process?

It was important for me not to do some type of impression. I don’t want this to be an impression. This is my interpretation of who Freddie is, was, and so I tried to embody his persona, his energy, but at the end of the day it’s my interpretation. So, like any actor, I studied his mannerisms, his rhythm, his voice pattern, and then you trust that’s going to be enough when you hit the stage.

Do you wish that you could have met Freddie? What do you think that would be like? What would you like to say to him?

I know that the one thing I always think about telling him is thank you, thank you for breaking the barriers, thank you for being one of the first pioneers to make us universally appealing, for being one of the first Latinos to be in a hit TV show. I don’t know if we’ve thanked him enough. In a way, this show is my thank you to him. George Lopez got him his star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’m giving him the play, to remind the older folks of who he was and educating the younger generation of who he was. So it plays on both levels, the nostalgia and the newcomers who had no idea.


Jose Sonera as Freddie Prinze, above. Top, Freddie himself, unknown source. (Please let us know if it’s yours.) 

Prinze is at the Sheen Center through November 18. Jose Sonera is a writer, and an actor who has appeared on NBC’s Law & Order, SiTV’s Unacceptable Behavior and has toured with the National Theatre of the Performing Arts in Don Quixote de la Mancha and Dandelion’s Much Ado About Nothing. Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.