The name is familiar, but the face is a new one.
Freddie Prinze Jr., the 19-year-old son of the late actor-comedian, seems as surprised as anyone else that he's launching a career in show business. "My head's still spinning a little bit," the handsome, soft-spoken actor says with a smile. "Especially when I talk to people back home."
Until a year and a half ago, home was Albuquerque, where Prinze was raised by his mother, Kathy, and grandmother. Freddie Jr. was only 10 months old in January 1977 when his father, the star of the sitcom "Chico and the Man" and a highly successful stand-up comedian, ended his life at age 22 with a self-inflicted gunshot.
"My mom knew it would have been rough for me to grow up in L.A., hearing all kinds of things about my dad," Prinze says. "So she made the smart choice to move me away from this town and raise me in the middle of the desert--where nothing could happen. And nothing did," he says with a laugh. "I went to school, I went to church, and I had a nice, quiet, normal childhood."
When Prinze graduated from high school in June 1994, he had already planned a career as a civil engineer. But during a trip to L.A., he decided to audition for some TV work and ended up with a role on "Family Matters." That led to work on the series "The Watcher." Suddenly the call of the engineering world was not so compelling.
"I always enjoyed acting in school productions," he says, "and I was involved with the Albuquerque Children's Theatre. I never dreamed I'd follow it as a career choice, though. My mother was worried when I first came out here, for obvious reasons. But things have been working out wonderfully, and she's been my biggest supporter. I love the work, and I love everything about the process. I feel like I'm having as much fun as when I was in third grade, pretending to be Luke Skywalker in my bedroom. Only now I'm actually getting paid for it."
Prinze recently completed work on his debut feature film, "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," which stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter Gallagher, Kathy Baker and Claire Danes.
One particularly satisfying aspect of his budding career is that it has given young Prinze a chance to get closer to the father he never knew. "I really liked doing the sitcom work, just because that's what my old man did, and I got to see a little bit of what it was probably like for him. I never watched too much of his show as a kid, but I did listen to his comedy constantly. That was my way of being close with him. I would practice the voice and memorize the routines. I had it down perfectly and I loved doing it."
Prinze realized that a career in comedy might not be a wise choice, however. "I guess I thought about it a couple of times," he says. "But there's no way I could follow in my dad's footsteps in comedy and do him justice. I'd be too afraid of doing his name wrong. I wouldn't mind the comparison--because I think now people just think 'Freddie Prinze--suicide,' and I'd like to put some attention back on his work. But how many times would I want to hear, 'He's not his old man'?"
Freddie Sr. was an implied presence during rehearsals for "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday." The film tells the story of a husband (Gallagher) whose dead wife (Pfeiffer) comes to him in visions and remains a powerful part of his life.
In the short time that he's been living and working in Los Angeles, Prinze feels he's gotten a clearer, deeper understanding of his father's life. And he also feels that their relationship has become stronger.
"I have the sense that he's looking at me from wherever he is. I used to think, 'I hope I make him proud some day.' Now I know that he's always been proud of me. He's always been looking out for me. Every once in a while it really feels like he's here with me--and that's a really nice feeling."