10/31/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Most celebrities beam when they set a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But accepting a star for his late father in 2004, Freddie Prinze Jr. cried. The ceremony came 27 years after Freddie Prinze, who paved the way for modern-day Hispanic comics with the breakthrough 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man, killed himself at age 22. "For all the comedians and Latinos in this business," says Prinze Jr. of the award, "I don't have the words to express how much it meant to me."
He never knew his father, who died when he was only 10 months old. But he has made it his career mission to keep the elder Prinze's legacy alive, and now he's reached a peak: He is not only the star of the new ABC sitcom Freddie (Wednesdays, 8:30 ET), but also its creator, writer and executive producer. "Every decision I've made in this business has been motivated by my father," says Prinze Jr., 29. "The most public way for him to be remembered is to be in homes once a week. I won't let people forget."
Prinze, whose father was half Puerto Rican, began acting at age 18, in a guest spot on the sitcom Family Matters. The role, he says, was a Hispanic stereotype. "I was a thug," says the bilingual Prinze Jr. "I was a kid that carried a gun to school. That's when I made up my mind. I focused on choosing characters that were stand-up guys." He made his name—and won devoted young female fans—playing all-American leading men in films like She's All That in 1999 and 2001's Summer Catch. "Look at my career," he says. "I play guys named Ryan or Zach or Chad. But it was that or play a junkie or gangbanger."
In Freddie, Prinze Jr.—who grew up in Albuquerque with his mother, Kathy, after his father's death—stars as a successful chef who finds himself sharing his apartment with members of his extended family after a tragedy. While Freddie does feature a primarily Hispanic cast and is slotted directly after comedian George Lopez's highly successful sitcom on ABC's fall schedule, Prinze Jr. gets angry when the show is defined by its ethnic background. "The bad thing is the press calling it the 'Latin Hour of Comedy,' " he says. "How do they even get away with that?" Prinze has become close friends with Lopez, who was the main advocate for his father's Walk of Fame star. Says Prinze Jr.: "He called them and said, 'How does Woody Woodpecker have a star and Freddie Prinze doesn't?' "
Of course, Prinze Jr.'s tightest bond in Hollywood is with his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar, 28, whom he first met on the set of I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997. The notoriously private couple, who have been married for three years and together almost six, also own an apartment in New York and hope to eventually live there full-time. They avoid Hollywood's party scene in favor of quiet nights at home. Prinze's father had publicly battled drugs and depression before his death, which was initially ruled a suicide. "When I was a kid, people expected me to make the same mistakes he did," says Prinze Jr. "My father put a bullet through his brain. I don't want to have anything to do with anything that could put me or my loved ones anywhere near that." Domesticity suits the pair, says Lopez: "They have an amazing relationship and they're grounded. I called last night and they were on the couch eating 'bad Chinese food,' watching a movie. That's how they are."
Neither Prinze nor Gellar, who starred in Buffy the Vampire Slayer for seven years and recently wrapped a starring role in the upcoming film Southland Tales, will provide any clues about the possibility of a future Freddie Prinze III. But he's happy to share his secret to a happy marriage. "It's not a magic trick," he says. "We just respect each other."
Chris Strauss. Mark Dagostino in New York City