Original Air Date: September 22nd, 1976
Freddie Prinze was a television star who was hoping to go onto bigger things like theatricals. While making a TV movie is more of a lateral move, Freddie saw it as a way to step out of his Chico image and give viewers something new. In his biography The Freddie Prinze Story, his mother says Prinze thought that Million Dollar Rip-Off was not such a great movie, but that he would get some good notice for it. According to her, he did indeed receive praise for this quirky heist comedy about a male con-artist who enlists four beautiful women to help him steal... you got it... a million dollars! OK, it’s actually 2.5 million, but you get the picture.
The humor of the film is not derived so much from the characters or their interaction; rather the comedy rides on the silly plot Prinze concocts. Each member of this gang wears funny costumes and those creepy latex masks that were so popular in films made in the 70s, and the women often go in drag as men (very, very ugly men) in an attempt to foil the law. Prinze plays Muff Kovak (!), a small time crook with big dreams and a lot creativity. He enlists some rather foxy ladies to help him out (including Joanna Kerns), but after a series of mishaps, he realizes there is an insider tipping off a thug named Lubeck (James Sloyan) and now the police have also caught wind of the caper. It’s up to Kovak to not just find the squeaky rat, but to also rip off the dough. Sometimes a good man is hard to find, but Kovak is just perfect for this job!
I liked Million Dollar Rip-Off a lot. It’s different for sure, and it isn’t quite sure what genre it’s going for, but the acting is uniformly great, and Prinze was right, he’s a knockout. It was such a treat to see him shed his usual jovial presence and offer up something a little darker. I thought he did a fantastic job of making the silly crime seem plausible and as the film progressed, I found myself becoming more and more immersed in the story, wondering if they would actually pull off the heist. The end is a bit of letdown, but it was probably the best way for the whole story to play out.
While the beautiful women were certainly a draw, this movie centers on Kovak and his struggles with Lieutenant Ralph Fogherty (Allen Garfield), who is the humorless “good guy” obsessed with catching Kovak red handed. The film was written by the actors William Devane and John Pleshette (the two would later star together on Knot’s Landing!) and according to a New York Times review, these actors had hoped to star in the film. I’m curious as to who would have played Kovak and who would have taken on Fogherty…
Million Dollar Rip-Off is far from perfect, but it’s also not just a throwaway TV movie from a bygone era either. It’s the only film Prinze was able to make before he took his own life, and it stands as a symbol of the great potential the actor had. It leaves a bittersweet feeling because I am left wondering what we missed out on now that Prinze is no longer with us, and it’s also great to see that he got to spread his acting wings a little farther, showcasing what a true talent he was.
Everyone can now enjoy Prinze’s lone film because it is streaming on both Netflix and Hulu! Hip hip hooray!