Drawing on a Brother's Insight

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

As John Ritter walked across the stage of the Laurel Theatre in Ventura, during a rehearsal for the play "J for J," fellow actor Jenny Sullivan--who's also the playwright--suddenly got all choked up.

Ritter is playing Sullivan's older, mentally retarded brother John Sullivan, while the writer plays herself. "He captured him so well at that moment," Sullivan later recalled, "that I started breathing differently, and it was hard for me to talk."

Not that Ritter's portrayal of Sullivan's sibling invariably brings her to tears--sometimes she laughs. "My brother is very funny to me, so it's great having a master comic playing him," she said.

"J for J," which opened Saturday in a Rubicon Theatre production at the Laurel, is based on a journal written by Sullivan's father, Hollywood actor Barry Sullivan. Although he was famous for playing hard-boiled types in '40s and '50s movies, he wrote his journal in the form of tender letters to his children. His daughter discovered the journal while going through her father's possessions after his death in 1994.

Ritter, 53, is best known as the quickly quipping star of the sitcoms "Three's Company," "Hooperman" and "Hearts Afire." But he brings some built-in understanding to the family dynamics in the relatively serious "J for J."

He too had a famous father--Tex Ritter, the country music singer-turned-movie star. John Ritter also has a disabled older brother, although the disabilities of the Ritter and Sullivan brothers are very different. Each set of siblings--the Ritters and the Sullivans--had another brother who died in infancy.

"The idea of feeling the responsibility of watching out for your older sibling is something I can identify with," Ritter said. His brother Tom Ritter, who has cerebral palsy, does his share of taking care of family affairs, the actor hastened to add. But as they were growing up, John said, "I thought my brother was much stronger, tougher and meaner than my parents thought. I thought they coddled him.

"If he fell down, I'd say, 'Get up.' I taught him how to play Wiffle ball." Later, Tom went to law school, which was where their parents wanted both of the boys to go, while John pursued drama. "He was the good son," John said. "I love him, and he loves me, but we've both been hard on each other." In fact, Ritter recalled that the two brothers had a noisy argument just a couple of days before the interview.

Besides appreciating "J for J" for its resonance with his situation as a brother, Ritter also reflected on its application to his roles as son and father.

"I'd love to have had letters like that from my dad," he said. He didn't feel his father was especially articulate about his deepest emotions. In late 1973, John approached his father on this subject. "I said, 'I want you to know that I know you love me.' A month later, he died."

Ritter is the father of three children from his first marriage, and a 3-year-old with second wife actress Amy Yasbeck. He hasn't written a journal for his kids, but he shoots videos, he said. Also, he tries to express his feelings in everyday life. "It's important to finish that kind of business as you go, to live in the moment," he said.

He hopes that's what he was doing when he recently had to raise his voice for the first time with young Stella, after she threw an object at her mother. After he had calmed down and explained the perils of flying objects, Ritter told his daughter he was sorry "for scaring her with the big voice."

Ritter and Jenny Sullivan, 54, have known each other for 30 years. She was a fellow actor in the first TV show he did, an episode of "Dan August." She recalled that their mutual agent asked her if she could take care of Ritter, the fledgling TV actor, on the set.

They became friends in an acting class taught by Mary Carver, Ritter said. Barely able to contain his laughter, he recalled a class exercise that he devised in which Sullivan played a corpse while he played a necrophiliac. Since that distinguished beginning, they have played opposite each other on several occasions, usually as husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend.

Ritter soon met Sullivan's brother John, who lived for 35 years in a developmental center in Pomona and now, at age 59, lives with five other men in a group house in Chatsworth operated by Therapeutic Living Centers, which will be one of the beneficiaries of the "J for J" opening-night gala.

Since Ritter started working on the play (in the past two years, he has performed the role in readings in Santa Barbara, L.A., Santa Fe, N.M., and Rehoboth Beach, Del.), he has hung out with John Sullivan on several occasions, at two of Sullivan's favorite places, Starbucks and Hamburger Hamlet. Sullivan loves to identify cars, Ritter noted, and enjoys Auto Trader magazine.

Ritter said John Sullivan calls him "John Rivers." He probably thinks of Ritter as "just another sucker who will buy him coffee," Ritter added.

Jenny Sullivan said her brother will soon see Ritter portraying him onstage; she plans to get him a ticket to a matinee of "J for J." He might well have something to say about his reactions, out loud while the play is going on, his sister said. "It could be an incredibly interactive experience."

Ritter has been onstage a lot in the last two years. He was in Neil Simon's play "The Dinner Party," first at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and then in Washington, D.C., and on Broadway. The play was much better in the East than it was in L.A., Ritter said; Simon "worked out the kinks before Washington."

For his Broadway debut, Ritter was a little leery that the tag of "TV actor" would taint him in some minds. One day a New York waiter mentioned to Ritter that he had seen the actor's picture posted in Sardi's, the famous Broadway restaurant. "Why?" the waiter asked. "Isn't this your first time here?"

"Because I was Vincent Sardi's lover," Ritter said he replied. (Actually, his photo was on the Sardi's wall because he had shot a movie there.)

Despite a few such moments when he felt his credentials were questioned, generally "we were welcomed with open arms," Ritter said. And "The Dinner Party" company responded with some intensive fund-raising for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS after performances. "People liked the fact that we did more than punch the clock."

His cast united with the cast of "Stones in His Pockets" for a baseball team with the moniker There's a Party in My Pockets. They also played host to a variety of interesting backstage visitors--celebrities such as Alan Alda and Mel Brooks, as well as "my girlfriend from Hollywood High School who left me and who hadn't seen me since 1967."

The New York stint brought Ritter closer to two of his older children: Jason, who was then an NYU senior and already appearing off-Broadway as an actor and is now at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and Carly, a student at Vassar College. (Their brother, Tyler, is a student at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.)

Since Sept. 11, Ritter's conversations with his older children have become quite intense about big issues, he said. "The minutiae, the petty hurts are microscopic compared to the dangers our country faces," Ritter said. "The family becomes so precious now." Ritter and Yasbeck co-hosted a theater music concert at the Wadsworth Theater on Oct. 1 that benefited victims of the attacks.

As for little Stella, she turned 3 on Sept. 11--but fortunately her party was held the previous Sunday. Ritter heard the grim news early on Sept. 11, but he said he let his wife and daughter sleep "as long as they could, because they would wake up to a different world." *

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