Emmy Award-winning actor John Ritter, who died unexpectedly Thursday night, had a television career marked by comic bookends. His most famous role was as a girl-chasing bachelor. And he was enjoying renewed success as a harried father chasing off the boys who pursued his two teenage girls.
In between, Ritter, 54, bounced between comedy and drama, playing such diverse characters as a dying Vietnam veteran, the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” an earnest San Francisco policeman and a gay Southern shop employee. The youngest son of country and western singer and actor Tex Ritter worked steadily, appearing in more than 100 TV series and movies, feature films and stage plays.
But Ritter, who would have celebrated his 55th birthday Wednesday, remains best remembered as Jack Tripper, the closeted heterosexual who shared a Santa Monica apartment with two sexy single women on ABC’s hit sitcom “Three’s Company.”
The actor’s loose-limbed physical comedy and verbal antics earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Though never a favorite with critics, “Three’s Company” aired for seven seasons and was a top 10 favorite for most of its run. It is currently in reruns on cable’s Nick at Nite.
“It wasn’t taken seriously,” said Larry Jones, general manager of TV Land and Nick at Nite. “The way critics often represent a TV show is not necessarily how the public feels about it.”
Ritter returned to that style of comedy with his latest ABC sitcom, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” engaging “a whole new generation of viewers again with the same talent he had 20 years ago,” Jones said.
Ritter was in rehearsals for the fourth episode of the show’s second season when he fell ill on the set at the Disney Studios in Burbank. Doctors at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center said the cause of death was a dissection of the aorta, resulting from an unrecognized flaw in the main artery going out of the heart. The condition is undetectable, according to medical experts.
The actor had been taken to the hospital, located across the street from the studio, after complaining of nausea and possible food poisoning.
Henry Winkler, Ritter’s friend and frequent co-star who was guest-starring in the episode scheduled to shoot Friday, said the actor had been in a good mood during the day: “The last second I saw him on the set yesterday, we were joking. We worked out a bit in a scene, and we laughed. I thought, ‘This is going to be great.’ ”
On ABC’s “8 Simple Rules,” Ritter starred as a sportswriter who works at home and deals with his three children while his wife returns to work. The sitcom, which was scheduled to return for its second season Sept. 23, is one of the few bright spots on the struggling network’s prime-time schedule.
The same network made Ritter a household name in “Three’s Company,” the American version of the British hit “Man About the House.” He won the role over 50 other young actors. His co-stars, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt, also gained fame on the racy comedy.
Don Nicholl, one of the creators and executive producers of the series, once said: “John did it perfectly, turning sex into a souffle. The beautiful part of it all is that we somehow put together a cast of naturally kooky people."In a downside to the stardom that “Three’s Company” brought them, though, Ritter and DeWitt engaged in a highly publicized feud with Somers after she staged a failed holdout for more money. Her co-stars refused to speak to her or work with her, and Somers filmed her few scenes each week on a different stage. The feud was dramatized earlier this year in an NBC TV movie hosted and co-produced by DeWitt.
When Somers left the show in 1981, “there were a lot of hurt feelings,” Ritter said in a People magazine interview last year. The two didn’t speak again until 1996, when the actress was recovering from breast cancer. Ritter contacted her, saying the situation “made me realize that all I care about is how happy and healthy she lives her life.” Somers sent him a thank-you note, and he called her, saying, “I miss you, I love you, I’m sorry.”
After “Three’s Company” ended in 1984, Ritter was given his own short-lived spinoff, “Three’s a Crowd,” in which Tripper became a restaurant chef.
The same year “Three’s Company” premiered, Ritter married his first wife, actress Nancy Morgan. The couple had three children, including actor Jason Ritter, 24, a co-star on CBS’ new series “Joan of Arcadia.”
Ritter also starred in the TV series “Hooperman” and “Hearts Afire,” such TV movies as the drama “Unnatural Causes” and numerous feature films, including his career-shifting performance as a gay store employee in good friend Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade.” He performed frequently on the stage, including appearances in Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party” at the Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway.
Production on “8 Simple Rules” shut down immediately, and Friday’s scheduled filming in front of an audience was canceled.
Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, said in a statement: “We are all of us at ABC stunned and profoundly saddened by the sudden death of John Ritter.... I can truly say that his loss will be felt very personally across the industry, as John had the wonderful ability to make everyone he worked with feel like not just a colleague, but also a friend. In a career that spanned three decades, he shared his splendid talents on television, film and stage. He made us laugh, and what a gift that was.”
Executives for Disney-owned ABC and Touchstone Television, which produces the sitcom, said a decision on the show’s future would probably not be made for several days.
“Everyone is in shock, and it really hasn’t sunk in yet,” said an insider on the sitcom. “It’s like a bad dream, and we wish we could wake up from it. He was really one of the nicest, most generous men you could imagine.”
Winkler added: “It is so unbelievable that this man is no longer here. It is inconceivable he is not here.... The word that people repeated, whether they were stand-ins, or co-stars or the producers, or the transportation captain, is ‘happy.’ It was such a happy set.”
Flody Suarez and Tracy Gamble, the executive producers of “8 Simple Rules,” said of Ritter in a statement released Friday: “He’d sweep onto a quiet set and it would instantly turn into a laugh-filled room. For everyone here, coming to work each day was a joy. You always knew, at some point, there would be a patented John Ritter pratfall or spit take. He had no shame when it came to making us laugh.”
Though the series also featured Katey Sagal as his wife and Kaley Cuoco and Amy Davidson as his daughters, Ritter was the sitcom’s center, making the continuation of the show even more problematic. The chemistry on the show was also a clear factor in its success, and Ritter, who had four children, was a father figure to his young co-stars.
A source close to the show said: “This cast was really like a family. They were incredibly close. They would get together even when they weren’t working.”
The actor had been in rehearsals for most of the day for an episode titled “The Hot List,” in which Kerry (Davidson) the more sedate of Hennessy’s daughters, is determined to be more “hot” at high school than her more extroverted older sister, Bridget (Cuoco). Winkler was playing Ritter’s managing editor in the installment. The two had worked together frequently during their careers.
Ritter, whose mother was former actress Dorothy Fay, was born Johnathan Southworth Ritter in Burbank on Sept. 17, 1948. In interviews, the younger Ritter remembered his father as being taciturn and his mother being supportive. Tex Ritter was 68 when he died of a heart attack in 1974.
He wanted both of his sons — John and older brother Tom — to study law. Tom, who was born with cerebral palsy, followed his father’s wishes, but both parents recognized that their younger son was destined to be a performer.
“John was always playing a part, even as a little boy,” his mother told TV Guide in 1978.
At Hollywood High School, Ritter was student body president, and for a time even considered a career in politics. “I wanted to be junior senator from California by the time I was 35,” he once said. “But I couldn’t take myself seriously for that long. I realized I wasn’t all sewed up mentally.”
He initially enrolled at USC as a psychology major but switched to theater arts after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy disheartened him. After graduating in 1971, he did regional theater.
“I remember thinking this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he told People magazine last year.
Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer of Center Theatre Group, recalled that Ritter received his Equity Card in 1970 as part of the Taper’s New Theater for Now. His last performance for Center Theatre Group was earlier this year as part of the ensemble doing a reading of “All About Eve” for a benefit for the Actors Fund. This past June, Ritter was honored with the Music Center’s Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“He was fearless,” Davidson said Friday. “He had a courage and a kind of daring.”
Ritter made his film debut in the 1971 Disney comedy, “The Barefoot Executive” and began guest-starring in such shows as “Dan August,” “MASH,” and “Hawaii Five-O.” He played the minister who performed the marriage of Ted and Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and from 1972 to 1977 he played the Rev. Matthew Fordwick on “The Waltons.”
Although Ritter worked steadily, he had difficulty matching the level of his “Three’s Company” success. “Hooperman” and “Hearts Afire,” his two subsequent series, only lasted a few seasons each.
He appeared in a succession of films that flopped, such as “Skin Deep,” “Real Men” and “Stay Tuned.”
But the 1990 comedy “Problem Child” was a surprise hit and introduced him to his second wife, co-star Amy Yasbeck, whom he began dating in 1994, a year after he separated from Morgan. They married in 1999, and had a daughter, Stella, who celebrated her 5th birthday Thursday, the day Ritter died.
After a series of low-profile projects, Ritter teamed up with Thornton, his “Hearts Afire” co-star, who was making his feature directorial debut in 1996’s independent drama “Sling Blade.” Ritter was almost unrecognizable in glasses and short hair as the gay friend of a Southern mother and her son. The portrayal demonstrated his versatility, and earned him the best reviews of his film career.
The next year brought him more notice when he played a recurring role as client-turned-love-interest George Madison on “Ally McBeal.”
In 2000, he won over preschool viewers as the voice of “Clifford, the Big Red Dog” on the popular PBS animated series.
Along with his success on “8 Simple Rules,” Ritter’s movie career was flourishing. He appeared in the independent film “Manhood,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and will be seen opposite Thornton in “Bad Santa,” opening in November.
Still, Ritter was clearly excited about his new TV project, and being back in the spotlight. Appearing with the cast last year at a Pasadena hotel in front of a gathering of national television reporters to discuss the series, Ritter literally bounded into the ballroom, and was animated but characteristically self-deprecating as he greeted and addressed the group.
When one reporter asked the actor if he felt any special anxiety about the new show, Ritter quipped, “The anxiety is, what’s Episode 2?”
In addition to his wife, oldest son, youngest daughter and brother, Ritter is survived by children Carly and Tyler. Funeral services are pending.