Poignant salute to Ritter

Times Staff Writer

The show went on and nearly 21 million viewers tuned in.

The cast of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenager Daughter" on Tuesday night bid a heartfelt, emotional farewell to the sitcom's star, John Ritter, in a special hourlong episode filled with tears, hugs and a few laughs.

Ritter who starred on the ABC sitcom as Paul Hennessy, a sportswriter and harried dad of three teenage children, died Sept. 11 at the age of 54 of a previously undetected heart condition. He had taped three episodes for the show's second season before his death. Those episodes aired in September and October, winning their time slots, with Ritter's final episode Oct. 7 drawing 17.45 million viewers. Repeats and extra installments of other series have aired in the time slot for the last month.

Tuesday's farewell scored 20,243,000 viewers in the overnight ratings, with the audience growing by 700,000 viewers in the second half hour. The series was by far the most watched program of the evening, almost 7 million more than the next closest program, CBS' "Judging Amy."

Tuesday's episode found Paul collapsing in the local grocery store, where Cate had sent him to get milk. News of his death sent the Hennessy family into shock, anger, guilt, disbelief and finally some sort of peace.

His wife, Cate (Katey Sagal), found herself unable to sleep in their bedroom and railed against God for taking her husband at age 46. Oldest daughter Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) stayed in her room feeling guilt over telling her father "I hate you" because he wouldn't let her drive the car. Younger daughter Kerry (Amy Davidson) couldn't stop talking, and son Rory (Martin Spanjers)put his fist through a wall.

For the first four post-Ritter episodes of "8 Simple Rules," ABC and the producers turned to two old pros at both comedy and drama, James Garner and Suzanne Pleshette. The two previously worked together in the 1966 film "Mister Buddwing" and 1971's "Support Your Local Gunfighter." Garner became a TV star in the late '50s with the ABC series "Maverick." The two have been brought in to play Cate's parents, who arrive to help her and the children in the grieving process.

Garner came across as a great old grandpa who took out his grief fixing things around the house and telling his grandson for the umpteenth time that he had met Ted Williams when he served in the Korean War. Pleshette, a far cry from her role as Emily in "The Bob Newhart Show," played a devoutly religious woman who tries to convince Cate not to blame God for Paul's death.

Patrick Warburton, John Ratzenberger and Larry Miller, who all guest starred on the series last season, also appeared in this episode.

Though not a blockbuster hit in its first season -- it didn't crack the top 25 shows of the year in the Nielsen ratings -- "8 Simple Rules" was one of the few bright spots on ABC's lineup and gave Ritter the opportunity to demonstrate the comedic talent that had made him a star in the late 1970s on the ABC comedy "Three's Company."

But revamping a series after a star's death, especially one so integral to the show's success as Ritter, has been risky. Ensemble series such as "Hill Street Blues," "Dallas" and "Night Court" continued for several seasons after the death of one of their supporting players. But "Chico and the Man," "Cover Up" and "Alias Smith and Jones" never were able to overcome the deaths of their leads.

ABC executives might have been reassured not only by the strong ratings, but also by some initial reaction from fan Web sites. According to the www.Sit comsOnline.com message board Wednesday, the "Goodbye" episode had fans reaching for their hankies.

"Although this was such a sad episode, it was a very fitting tribute to John Ritter," said one posting. Another member of the message board added: "As far as I am concerned, Katey deserves not only an Emmy nomination, but the award as well. She and the rest of the cast did an excellent job in that episode.... If they go on with the show, the least I can do is watch."

This episode and next Tuesday's were filmed without a studio audience (although there was a laugh track during the opening minutes before the family learned of the death). Tapings with an audience resume tonight.

As for plans for the rest of the season, ABC Chairman Lloyd Braun has said they want to get the show back on its feet and see how "it feels after the first episode or two."

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