The unexpected death of actor John Ritter, who rose to fame in the 1970s as a wacky bachelor in the hit ABC series “Three’s Company,” not only shocked fans and colleagues but delivered a powerful blow to the ailing network’s hopes of reviving its fortunes through the comedian’s latest sitcom.
Ritter, 54, became sick Thursday after working on an episode of his ABC series, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” He underwent surgery at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and died shortly after 10 p.m. He had an undetected heart flaw, said his publicist, Lisa Kasteler.
On the same Burbank sound stage where Ritter fell ill, the cast and crew of “8 Simple Rules” on Friday traded stories and memories of working with the comedian, who entered American living rooms as man in his 20s and came back last year as a married, middle-aged sportswriter who works at home and raises three teenagers.
In the suites of ABC and its parent firm, Walt Disney Co., executives were dealing with the personal tragedy of losing one of the network’s most likable stars too. But they also were confronted with the harsh reality that one of their most important shows had been jeopardized on the eve of the fall season.
“8 Simple Rules” was set to return Sept. 23.
“John was the reason for the show,” said producer Ted Harbert, a former network TV executive and a longtime friend of Ritter’s. “He’s irreplaceable.”
Although “8 Simple Rules” was only a modest hit last year, the program buoyed ABC executives who have acknowledged that a series of management miscues and mistakes had damaged the network’s ratings and advertising revenue.
Among other things, ABC executives were criticized for turning off viewers by saturating its lineup in 2000 with the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” without creating new, scripted programs.
Within a two-year span, ABC fell from the top of the ratings heap to No. 3. Along the way, Disney’s earnings suffered. Faced with growing dissatisfaction among investors and board members, Chief Executive Michael Eisner and President Robert Iger vowed to restore the network’s reputation and bottom line.
“8 Simple Rules” was a central part of ABC’s new strategy, one that would attempt to replicate the network’s earlier successes with such comedies as “Three’s Company,” “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement.”
Executives at Disney and ABC fussed over the show’s every detail. Eisner sent a note to producers suggesting that one scene be shortened. It was.
ABC decided to premiere “8 Simple Rules” along with other fall hopefuls on a single Tuesday night. To help sell the show, ABC used Ritter’s return to TV comedy as a publicity hook and promoted the program relentlessly, including in McDonald’s restaurants.
In a business in which rivals often wish one another to fail, both fans and TV professionals rooted for Ritter’s prime-time comeback. His gentle on-screen affability, friends said, was a reflection of his off-screen personality.
Ritter himself acknowledged how much was riding on the show. In an interview with The Times during a break in shooting, he joked: “Michael Eisner is in my dressing room right now, waiting to give me a deep-tissue massage.”
The first show delivered, drawing a surprisingly large audience of more than 17 million viewers. It easily won its time slot that night both in viewers and in adults ages 18 to 49, the group most sought by advertisers. Nielsen Media Research data showed that “8 Simple Rules” achieved ABC’s highest season premiere rating for that half-hour since “Roseanne” in 1996.
A relieved ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, who had picked “8 Simple Rules” as the network’s best hope, said after the premiere: “That was one hurdle we had to get over -- to demonstrate that we could open these new shows.”
Although “8 Simple Rules” would not close last season as the top rated of the network’s new sitcoms, it won the People’s Choice Award for favorite new television comedy and helped draw viewers to other new ABC comedies, including “According to Jim” and “Life With Bonnie.”
Overall, ABC’s prime-time ratings were up, tying with CBS for third place in the 18-to-49 demographic.
As for the quickly approaching new season, ABC on Friday quietly mapped out several scenarios. According to industry sources, one involves canceling the show. The more likely outcome, they said, would be for the program to continue without Ritter’s character. So far, three episodes have been shot.
Film director Tom Shadyac, an executive producer of the show, said any discussion of its future would occur next week after the cast and crew, with whom Ritter was immensely popular, have time to grieve.
“We’ve got a business decision to make once the business of life moves on, and it will always be respectful of John and his spirit,” Shadyac said.
If ABC does decide to go forward, “8 Simple Rules” has the advantage of co-star Katey Sagal, said Tim Brooks, coauthor of the “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” Although not the program’s centerpiece, the former “Married ... With Children” star “is a very accomplished, well-known actress herself and certainly strong enough to carry a series.”
In the past, networks have rarely succeeded in keeping a show going when a lead character dies. Industry executives said the task would be especially difficult with “8 Simple Rules” because the show was closely tied to Ritter and his affable personality.
Given the money at stake, networks usually have tried to keep shows going after a lead or major character dies suddenly. But rarely with success.
The 1970s hit show “Chico and the Man” survived only one season after the suicide of Freddie Prinze. Show producers wrote in a plot twist in which Prinze’s character, Chico, left to form his own business.
“NewsRadio” also managed one season after comic Phil Hartman was replaced in the ensemble cast with a new character played by Jon Lovitz. Hartman was slain in 1998 by his wife in a murder-suicide.
When shows do survive, it usually is when the actors are part of a larger cast. Last season, two actors on CBS shows died mid-season -- Richard Crenna on “Judging Amy” and Lynne Thigpen on “The District” -- but neither played a leading role, making it easier to absorb their absence.
One of the few series to survive without one of its major characters was “Dallas” in 1981, when actor Jim Davis, who played patriarch Jock Ewing, died. Davis’ death was written into the show as a key plot twist, and the show continued as a hit. “Dallas” was less successful replacing actress Barbara Bel Geddes, who played matriarch Miss Ellie. Donna Reed filled in when Bel Geddes left for health reasons; Bel Geddes later returned to the show when her health improved.
Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow said that, for ABC, Ritter’s death “is a challenge on every single level.”
“This show is one of ABC’s most important shows,” he said. ".... The most important thing is to be as humanistic as possible and not get consumed by the business side of the business.”
Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Elizabeth Jensen and Claudia Eller contributed to this report.