"When I told people I was going back to the theater, they looked at me as if I'd announced I was going to have a sex-change operation. But I knew it was time to get back to my roots."

On Sept. 29, John Ritter opens in the British comedy import "The Unvarnished Truth" at the Ahmanson Theatre. And it's quite true what he says--some people are indeed giving him those "what for?" looks.

That's because Ritter's success on television--in "Three's Company" and "Three's a Crowd"--has tended to obscure the fact that at heart he's a stage actor, and with a lot of credits ("Desire Under the Elms," "The Glass Menagerie," "Butterflies Are Free"). But having strayed into television, he stayed.

Then a few months ago he ran across Robert Fryer, artistic director of the Ahmanson, at a dinner party given by Sidney Sheldon. During a chat, Ritter volunteered the information that he'd been an usher at the Ahmanson back in 1968. "Then why not come and do something in front of the audience for a change?" Fryer said. And a short time later he sent him "The Unvarnished Truth," a play by Royce Ryton that was a big hit in London.

This is the play about which the London Times critic wrote, "I laughed until the flood of my tears drowned several usherettes, the box-office staff and even the theater cat." Deciding that this sounded promising, Ritter said yes.

He admits he's nervous.

"I did 200 performances as Jack Tripper in 'Three's Company' and 'Three's a Crowd' in front of studio audiences, and each time I got butterflies in my stomach," he said. "So, yes, I'm nervous about doing this. And that Ahmanson stage looks so big--first time I walked out on it I felt I was on that spaceship in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'

"But I have done a lot of theater--it was my first love--so I should be all right.

"And this isn't an ego thing for me; I'm not saying 'Look, I can do theater.' The fact is that all that theater I did years ago gave me the chance to get into TV. Now, TV's given me the chance to go back to the theater for a while."

SHINING: Nobody's yet been able to steal a scene from Meryl Streep, but there's some petty pilfering going on in the movie "Plenty" (opening Sept. 19). The culprit is a sassy and talented young British dancer-singer-actress named Tracey Ullman.

If her name registers here, it's because of her singing hit "They Don't Know," which did well in the United States. But in Britain she has a big reputation because of a BBC comedy series in which she starred.

She's also done a lot of theater there and was involved briefly in the workshop production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's roller-skating extravaganza, "Starlight Express."

Ask her why she didn't go with it into the West End--she says, rather tartly, "I couldn't bloody well skate well enough. I kept bumping into walls."

She made her film debut in Paul McCartney's "Give My Regards to Broad Street," but it's "Plenty," starring Streep, Charles Dance and John Gielgud, that gives her the chance to shine. And shine she does.

Did it make her nervous, acting with Streep?

"Not at all," she said, "probably because I'm so new to films I didn't know to be nervous. Anyway, she put me so much at ease. We got along really well."

She even socialized with Streep a little.

"One night, she invited me to join her for dinner," she said. "We were with Robert De Niro, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Christopher Walken. I was the only person there I didn't know."

Now, she wants to make more movies.

"I've been sent three scripts in the past few days," she said. "That's encouraging, isn't it? And I've got a pilot commitment from CBS to do my own show--I'm excited about that. I'd really like to make it in television over here. It's such a challenge, and they pay such a lot of money. I like that. I don't want to be poor anymore."

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