Tag Archives: James Komack

SIGNED, EPSTEIN’S MOTHER

7 May

60 years ago, on Monday, May 7, 1951, actor Robert Hegyes was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey… and like another 1970s sitcom actor, Hegyes is half-Hungarian. Freddie Prinze called himself a Hunga-Rican. Perhaps we can call Robert Hegyes a Hungi-Talian.

After graduating from Glassboro State College with a degree in theater Robert Hegyes joined up with several acting troupes in New York City. Just a few years later he was cast as Juan Epstein in “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Robert Hegyes 8x10 sent in response to a fan letter in the 1970s.

Juan Epstein, of course, was one of the “sweathogs” (remedial high school students) on the sitcom, who were taught by Mr. Kotter, himself a former “sweathog.” During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. Believe me, “Welcome Back, Kotter” was the talk of the school the day after every episode.

When I wrote to Robert Hegyes at the time I was surprised to get the letter, shown below, in return. Most often I would receive a form letter. This one actually appears to be typed and looks less than perfect. For that reason I have always believed that this was a personal response, actually signed by Hegyes. That’s what makes it an even more appreciated and cherished part of my collection.

Letter from Robert Hegyes written on “Welcome Back, Kotter” stationery.

Welcome Back, Kotter” premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. Hegyes also directed a few episodes. After “Kotter” he appeared in episodes of shows such as, “Diagnosis Murder,” “The Drew Carey Show,” and “NewsRadio.” In the 1980s he had a recurring role as Detective Manny Esposito in the police drama, “Cagney & Lacey”.

Just last month Robert Hegyes joined most of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” colleagues for a reunion at the TV Land Awards.

Happy 60th Birthday Bobby, I wish you all the best. Thanks for making going to high school in Brooklyn in the 70s kinda cool!

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SITTING IN FOR JOHNNY…

4 Feb

75 years ago today, on Tuesday, February 4, 1936 comedian David Brenner was born in Philadelphia.

After a first career as a writer and producer of TV documentaries, and already in his 30s, Brenner left his job and gave himself one year to make it as a standup comedian. Just as that year was coming to a close David Brenner made an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1971. From that day on he has had a career in comedy and he gives “The Tonight Show” all the credit.

In fact, according to Brenner, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” 158 times, which Brenner says is the record for most appearances by any guest on the show. He also guest-hosted for Johnny more than 50 times.

Publicity photo for David Brenner in “Snip,” an NBC sitcom that never made it to the air.

Although Brenner made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of appearances on TV in the 1970s he has only had his own program once… almost twice. The photo above was from a David Brenner sitcom that was never broadcast. “Snip,” produced by James Komack, was on NBC’s fall schedule and set to premiere in September 1976, but it was abruptly canceled before a single episode aired.

Because “Snip” had an openly gay character, which would have been a first on TV, NBC apparently was concerned and decided not to break that barrier. One year later that distinction went to the character of Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) on ABC’s “Soap.”

If God Wanted us to Travel by David Brenner

David Brenner finally starred in his own program from September 1986 to May 1987, when he hosted a late night syndicated talk show. “Nightlife” was a 30-minute program with Billy Preston as musical director, but it could not find a niche and lasted just eight months.

David Brenner’s autograph inside If God Wanted us to Travel signed in 1990.

Brenner stopped touring for many years due to a custody battle involving his oldest son, but he is now back on the road.

Happy 75th David… I wish you many more. You made the 1970s a laugh riot for me and my friends.

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINZE

29 Jan

NBC publicity photo of Freddie Prinze, circa 1975.

34 years ago today, on Saturday, January 29, 1977 actor, comedian Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The young star of NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was just 22 years old.

The death certificate of Freddie Prinze.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way… or this soon. Three and a half years earlier Freddie Prinze was an unknown teenager working the comedy clubs of New York City. Then came an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Producer James Komack was watching that night and asked Prinze to audition for a new sit-com called “Chico and the Man.”

Script for “Chico and the Man” episode that was taped on January 21, 1975. Once Prinze was cast as mechanic Chico Rodriguez he became a star – even before a single episode had been broadcast. Freddie Prinze moved to Los Angeles and, with veteran actor Jack Albertson, made “Chico and the ManNBC’s newest hit. The show premiered on Friday, September 13, 1974.

Freddie’s first L.A. apartment was in this building on N. Laurel Ave. Photo taken in 1989.

Over the next few years, as Freddie Prinze grew in popularity, he recorded a comedy album, starred in a TV movie, headlined in Las Vegas, and guest hosted “The Tonight Show.” But Prinze had a drug problem… and his marriage was on the rocks. In fact, as January 1977 rolled around Prinze was living apart from his wife at the Beverly Comstock Hotel.

Freddie’s last apartment was at the Beverly Comstock Hotel, where he shot himself. Photo taken in June 1979.

On January 20th Prinze performed at the Inaugural Gala for new President Jimmy Carter, but a week later his world came crashing down. While under the influence of narcotics and reportedly despondent, Freddie Prinze shot himself in the head on January 28, 1977 at 3:30am. He was taken to the UCLA Medical Center where he lingered for more than 33 hours.

At 1:00pm on Saturday, January 29, 1977 Freddie Prinze died from his injuries. He was 22 years old.

Freddie is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

Freddie Prinze’s death was ruled a suicide. Several years later his mother, Maria Pruetzel, went to court to argue that Prinze was not responsible for his actions due to the influence of narcotics. She was honest in admitting that part of her reason for doing so was that she needed the money from his life insurance policy. Prinze’s death was ruled accidental and Pruetzel was able to collect the money.

This writer paying his respects to Freddie Prinze in 1989.

From the day of Prinze’s first “Tonight Show” appearance to the day he died just 3 years and 2 months had passed. But, in that short time, the talented, lovable actor and comedian entertained us and, when he left us, millions grieved for him and pledged to remember him always. Freddie Prinze was just 22 years old.

THE PRINZE OF COMEDY

6 Dec

37 years ago tonight, on Thursday, December 6, 1973 Freddie Prinze became a star.

Freddie Prinze with Johnny Carson on a later "Tonight Show" appearance, circa 1975.

That was the night the young comedian made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Throughout Carson’s 30 year reign, stand-up comedians vied for a coveted spot on “Tonight” because one good performance could literally give you a career. And while Carson rarely invited a new comedian to sit down after their first appearance, a simple “OK” sign from the “King of Late Night” was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Publicity photo of Freddie Prinze sent to fans of "Chico and the Man"

On December 6, 1973 Sammy Davis Jr. was seated to Johnny’s right as 19-year old Freddie Prinze came on stage for the most important performance of his life. While the audience loved him, and Carson was impressed, some say it was Davis’s fawning over the comic that prompted Johnny to wave Freddie over to the chair.

Publicity photo of Freddie Prinze sent to fans, circa 1974.

While better gigs and more money did follow for Prinze, it was more important that producer James Komack, was watching “The Tonight Show” that night.  Komack was in the process of creating the sit-com “Chico and the Man” and that confluence of circumstances would change Prinze’s life. Nine months after that fateful “Tonight Show” appearance “Chico and the Man” starring Freddie Prinze and veteran actor Jack Albertson premiered on NBC.

Letter to fans that accompanied the previous photos.

And so, a good performance on “The Tonight Show” literally gave Prinze a career. I don’t mean to suggest that he didn’t earn it; rather I’m trying to emphasize the power of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” especially in the 1970s.

Autograph sign by Freddie Prinze on September 27, 1974, after a taping of "The $25,000 Pyramid"

Freddie Prinze became a sit-com star, a Vegas headliner, and a guest host on “The Tonight Show.” He recorded a comedy album and starred in a TV movie. Prinze also had a drug problem. And in January 1977 Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. 

Publicity photo of Prinze in "Chico and the Man" that was sent to NBC stations.

Few know that Prinze was not making his network debut that December evening. Months earlier he had performed on Jack Paar’s late night show on ABC without much notice. But it was “The Tonight Show” that mattered and Prinze would always refer to his December 6, 1973 appearance as his TV debut. Sadly, viewers only got to enjoy Freddie Prinze for a little more than 3 years before his career and his life came to a tragic end.

But that story, dear friends, is best saved for another date in TV history.

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