Chico and the Man was a sitcom that aired on NBC from 197478, starring Jack Albertson as Ed Brown ("The Man"), the elderly owner of a run-down garage in an impoverished East Los Angeles barrio; and Freddie Prinze as the streetwise young mechanic Francisco "Chico" Rodriguez.
The initial premise saw Chico, a Chicano-Latino, arrive in Los Angeles looking for work and his next big break. One of his stops is at Ed's Garage, where the cranky Ed is in a foul mood and basically wanting the world to go away uses ethnic slurs to drive Chico away ("Go away, and take your flies with you!" was generally the most quoted one in negative reviews of the pilot). Chico leaves disappointed, but late that night, he returns and cleans the garage and moves into an old van parked in the garage. Ed grudgingly gives Chico a job, and as the series progresses, the two warm up to one another. Ed's cynical, bitter view of the world changes (he had become a virtual alcoholic upon the death of his wife several years earlier) and he eventually comes to accept Chico as a surrogate son.
Two other characters were added early: Scatman Crothers as Louie Wilson, the neighborhood garbage collector; and Della Reese as Della Rogers, the landlord. Also seen on occasion was Isaac Ruiz as Mando, one of Chico's best buddies.
Things went well for the first couple of years, but behind the scenes, things were not well for Prinze, the promising, bright, telegenetic and charismatic young comic that viewers knew. Only his close friends and his wife knew that he suffered from severe depression. Unable to cope with sudden success and the balance of fatherhood (he's the father of Freddie Prinze Jr.), he turned to drugs... and eventually bought a gun. In January 1977, his wife of less than 15 months walked out on him, taking Freddie Jr. with her. One thing led to another, and on January 28 just hours after taping completed on the ironically named episode "Ed Talks to God" he pointed the gun at his head. Various stories have circulated about others who spoke with the elder Prinze in his final hours, but it is known that his business manager, Marvin "Dusty" Snyder, learned of Prinze's intentions and tried to intervene but walked in just as Prinze fired his gun. Less than 24 hours later, Prinze was dead.
What to do? As a stopgap measure, Prinze was written out as being "away," visiting his father in Mexico, while several scripts in stock that focused on the other characters were re-written, either removing Chico's lines or giving them to other characters. With ratings still good, it was decided to introduce a new "Chico," not an adult but a young tweener named Raul (Gabriel Melgar). Raul is a 12-year-old orphaned street urchin who stows away in the trunk of Ed's car. (Ed and Louie had gone on a fishing trip to Mexico when Raul stowed away.) Raul's circumstances are explained and Ed decides to adopt him. A few months later, Spanish-American comedienne-actress Charo joined the cast as Raul's Aunt Charo.
Toward the end of Season 4, the Tearjerker episode, explaining that Chico had indeed died, was produced and aired, framing the whole thing around Ed angrily berating Raul for getting into Chico's things (smashing Chico's guitar in the process) and a scared Raul running away; Ed eventually finds him and apologizes. In many ways, that brought closure not only to Ed (and by extension, Albertson) but to viewers and the series. A few more episodes were left, but in reality, with Prinze having been dead a year, the series had run its course.
The series remains influential today for its on-screen chemistry and Prinze as a hard-working Chicano-Latino role model. Latino singer José Feliciano, best known for his cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire" and his Christmas song "Feliz Navidad," performed the theme song.
Chico and the Man provides examples of:
- Borrowed Catch Phrase: A few years after Prinze's death CBS used his "Looking Good!" Catch-Phrase for a series of ads promoting their upcoming fall season. It didn't go over well.
- Bus Crash: "Raul Runs Away," where Chico is finally acknowledged as deceased, after months of viewers being told Chico was simply "away." Exactly how he died was never really discussed, but we're left with the impression that Chico died the way Prinze died in Real Life.
- Celebrity Star: A few of the most notable episodes featured guest stars: José Feliciano (who performed the show's main theme), Sammy Davis Jr. (who appeared in just about every sitcom) and Tony Orlando (one of Prinze's closest friends).
- Character Outlives Actor: Initially, with Chico, in the final episodes of Season 3; Chico was "away" visiting his father or "on business."
- Cousin Oliver: Raul, during the final season (as a replacement for Chico, whose portrayer died earlier in 1977).
- Drum Bathing: As seen during one of the show's openings, Ed Brown finds Chico bathing in a 55-gallon drum in the men's room of the garage.
- Lives in a Van: Chico lives in a VW van permanantly docked in the Man's garage.
- Put on a Bus: The initial explanation for why Chico was not around anymore, from late in Season 3 to "Raul Runs Away" midway through Season 4. The stopgap measure to address Chico's absence was a few hastily rewritten scripts, stating that Chico was "away" (it was explained on the show that Chico was off reconnecting with his Disappeared Dad, who had appeared in an episode shortly before Freddie Prinze died) and using existing scripts that focused on Ed and/or other characters giving Chico's lines to other cast members. A few Chico-centric scripts were held over to Season 4 and given to Raul.
- Short Runner: In terrestrial syndication. Although the show was a consistent hit for NBC in the mid-1970s, it failed in syndication when the series was stripped in the fall of 1978. Some have said this was likely in part due to the death of Freddie Prinze a year and a half earlier, though it was mostly because of the So Okay, It's Average final season, which existed mainly so the show could have a decent syndication package (Chico had only three seasons worth of material produced before Prinze's death). Chico was primarily rerun on smaller independent stations, though it's aired occasionally on rerun-type networks, including TVLand.
- Street Urchin: Raul, before emigrating from Tijuana to the United States. Also briefly in "Raul Runs Away."
- Thematic Theme Tune / Title Theme Tune: "Chico and the Man", performed by José Feliciano. It was released as a single and actually became a minor charting hit.
- Very Special Episode: "Raul Runs Away", in which Chico's death is explained and Ed finally comes to terms with his passing.