His first role had only four lines, but in 1994, when 18-year-old Freddie Prinze Jr. landed a job on the hit sitcom Family Matters, he knew just what to do. "I went to my father's grave in Forest Lawn," he says. "I put my hand on his plaque and I said, Thank you. I hope you're watching now. I hope to make you proud.' "

Prinze, now 20 and busting out in a pair of new movies, would make any father's chest swell. He doesn't drink or do drugs and has a steady girlfriend. He is a Hollywood rarity: big name, small ego, a winning combination of sweet and tough, and he's getting solid reviews playing Claire Danes's boyfriend in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer. Prinze, says Mark Waters—who directs him in the dark comedy The House of Yes, slated for a '97 release—is "incredibly talented."

But along with the gift came a looming ghost that he has never quite shaken. On Jan. 29, 1977, when Prinze was just 10 months old, his father, Freddie Prinze Sr., despondent over his recent divorce from Kathy Cochran and high on prescription drugs, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The death unsettled Hollywood and shocked fans. Only 22 at the time, Prinze was at the top of his form. Known to millions of viewers for his infectious grin and bubbling good humor, the Hungarian-Puerto Rican actor played a sunny Latino garage mechanic on the sitcom Chico and the Man. He was also a model of super success for a generation of comics including Jay Leno, and his short life and tragic end became, like those of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, a cautionary fable about the dangers of celebrity. "Freddie will always be 21 to me," says Leno, who once crashed in Prinze's apartment when both were struggling young stand-ups. "He never got to be an adult. He was like a classmate who got shot in 'Nam. It was just Freddie going 100 mph."

Along with the large-screen TV and the state-of-the-art video games that are necessities of life for his generation, Prinze Jr.'s North Hollywood house, which he shares with two other people, is decorated with mementos of the father he never knew. There's a photo of his dad in his cozy bedroom and a framed copy of his 1975 Looking Good comedy album in the hallway. What he knows of his father comes through friends and his mother, who was married to Prinze Sr. for two years and now lives in Las Vegas, where she works as a real estate agent. "She told me about how much he loved me, the way his face would light up when he held me, about how he called me 'Pie,' my nickname," says Prinze. "She told me I brought him a lot of joy as a baby."

For a while it seemed as though Prinze would be spared the aftershocks of his father's death—and the daily temptations to follow Dad's wild ways. His mother moved with her 4-year-old son from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, where Kathy's parents lived. There, Freddie could be just Freddie instead of Chico's son. And there, his mother hoped, people wouldn't befriend him simply because of his proximity to stardom or because they wanted something. In the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque was the kind of place, Prinze says, "where I could have a normal life of playing Little League baseball, soccer and taking swimming lessons." New Mexico was far from the drug culture of L.A. "My dad taught me one of the most valuable lessons in the world through his death," says Prinze. "Because he accidentally killed himself while using drugs. That's why I'll never use them."

Kathy's iron hand, swathed in velvet, guided Freddie's childhood. Money, at least, was not an issue. In 1981, Kathy and Freddie Sr.'s. mother, Mary Preutzel, sued the psychiatrist who they claimed had given Prinze access to the pistol he used to shoot himself and an internist who they said had overprescribed the tranquilizer Quaalude. In out-of-court settlements the family received nearly $1 million. But a different kind of security mattered to Freddie. "When I'd fall to the ground, she'd pick me up," he says of Kathy. "When I was scared, she'd tell me everything would be okay. She just loves me so damn much. She never quit on me."

Nor did Don Sandoval, father of Freddie's best friend, Chris. Prinze adopted Sandoval as a surrogate dad and turned to him for advice and hugs. "He's like another son I didn't have," says Sandoval, 49, an office supply company manager. Still, Freddie missed having a father of his own. "It was very frustrating," he says. "It hurt a lot growing up. As I got older, sometimes I became angry because almost everybody I knew had an old man except me. That wears on you after a while. It becomes like a rock that you have to push up a hill, which eventually rolls you over."

At Albuquerque's La Cueva High School, Prinze cut classes and rarely studied unless something ignited his imagination, like reading aloud from Oedipus Rex. Then, says his 12th-grade literature teacher, Patsy Boeglin, "I think everybody could see his passion." Although Kathy objected, acting eventually became an obsession. "My mother didn't want me to go down the same road as my father," he says. (Now, though, she supports Freddie's choice.)

Nonetheless, he persevered. After graduating, he took acting lessons and moved to L.A. "Some people didn't think he'd make it and he'd be back in a few months," says Nick Werner, a close friend. But he hung on, living with a friend of his mother's while he went to auditions. "I felt so alone," he says. "I spent a lot of nights crying. I had no one to talk to. But after six months I literally felt the hand of God on me. I dropped to my knees and cried. A hole was filled. I felt love like I had never felt before. And things started to fall into place."

After bumping around in minor roles on TV, Prinze seems to have found his calling on the big screen. When the 6'1" brown-eyed actor walked onto the Yes set, costars Genevieve Bujold and Parker Posey exclaimed, "He's so adorable!" But that doesn't mean he's self-assured. He flubbed his love scene with Tori Spelling, who plays his older brother's fiancée. "I kissed her eye. I kissed her tear," he says with a smile. "I couldn't get the dress undone. I'm not smooth with women at all."

Maybe not, but he's already spoken for. The love of his life is 18-year-old Kimberly McCullough, whom he met through a friend. She played Robin Scorpio on General Hospital until last August, when she left to study film at New York University. Says Freddie, who came to Manhattan to visit her last month: "I can only describe her as an angel. I can't stop thinking about her."

Beneath the newfound love and a budding career, thoughts of his father are never far away. "I know one day I'm going to be the best father in the world," he says. "Me not having a father makes me want to be a great one. I have so much love I wanted to give him, and I'll be damned if I don't get to give it to a child of mine."

J.D. Reed
Marc Ballon in Los Angeles

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