On the morning of September 12, 2003, I got up to help get the boys off to school. Chris was a junior, Vince an 8th grader. Like every day, I went back and forth a few times trying to rouse them from that deep teenage-boy sleep, and during the moments in between, I sat down at the computer, signed on, and waited for five minutes of pre-broadband eternity for the home page to pop up on the screen. On most days, the MSNBC site would feature whatever happened overnight in Washington or some foreign capital. That unforgettable morning delivered a double whammy though: not one celebrity death, but two. Johnny Cash and John Ritter. Cash’s death, while very sad, was not terribly unexpected. He was in his 70s, and had been quite ill for a number of years. But John Ritter? He wasn’t even 55. He was still active and vibrant. He was starring in the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules,” which seemed headed for a long run. Then suddenly, shockingly, he was gone.
He had been working on the second season’s fourth episode, and reportedly did not feel well that day. He was taken to a nearby hospital and died of an aortic dissection, described as an abnormal separation of tissues within the walls of the aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The weakened blood vessel may burst, which usually results in death if not treated immediately. Evidently that’s what happened.
Occasionally a TV star becomes ill, or is involved in an accident, which leads us to wonder, “What would happen to (name a hit show) if (name a big star) died suddenly? It hasn’t happened often. Freddie Prinze of “Chico and the Man” committed suicide in 1977, and the show couldn’t recover without its beloved title character. In the original “Dallas,” the family patriarch “Jock Ewing,” (Jim Davis) died. In the 2012 update, son “JR” Larry Hagman died. In both cases, the show went on, with tributes and new plot lines about the deceased stars. Same with Tony Soprano’s mother (played by Nancy Marchand), who was a major figure in the early years of HBO’s “The Sopranos.” In the upcoming season, “Glee” will deal with the recent death of young star Cory Monteith. Other supporting cast members and soap stars have died during the production of their series, but few hit us as hard as the death of John Ritter.
He first hit national fame on “Three’s Company,” the 1970s comedy that seemed racy at the time, but is innocently tame by 2013 standards. Ritter played Jack Tripper, a ladies man who had to pretend to be gay in order to share a condo with two of the hottest babes on TV, Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers (later replaced by the impossibly beautiful Priscilla Barnes). The befuddled landlords, first Norman Fell and later Don Knotts, had to be convinced that Jack was gay, or they’d toss him out on the streets. It was a simple premise that stretched into seven years on ABC, and an eternity in rerun-land. Ritter’s trademark double-takes and nimble physical humor dominated the show, at least when Somers wasn’t jiggling her way on to magazine covers.
After that series ended, he had the typical Hollywood up-and-down career with some guest shots, more TV series and movies, a few hits and a few flops. Then came “8 Simple Rules (For Dating My Teenage Daughter),” based on a popular book. It premiered in the fall of 2002, and while not a runaway hit like “Seinfeld” in the 90s or “The Cosby Show” in the 80s, it was certainly successful by 2002 standards. It was a scripted show we watched as a family, which seems almost a quaint notion in this era of tacky “reality” and shock TV. I believe I’m accurate in saying that Ritter’s timing and the show’s clever writing attracted my wife and me. On the other hand, Chris and Vince seemed equally interested in the “teenage daughter” part of the show, played by the lovely young Kaley Cuoco, who has gone on to make a big bang in another successful sitcom.
I still catch a rerun of “8 Simple Rules” now and then, and John Ritter still makes me laugh. I found a blooper reel on YouTube a while back, and I’ve seen it several times. Whenever you’re having a bad day, watch this. You’ll see a happy family of actors, and it will make you wonder how they ever filmed a new show each week.
By all accounts, the “8 Simple Rules” studio was a happy set. I would have loved to seen a filming, just to watch Ritter and his friends muff a few lines, and ham it up for the audience. At the time of his death, John Ritter had filmed about 30 episodes, and suddenly the producers faced that sad scenario I brought up earlier: how do you replace the star of a hit show, who dies suddenly? If it’s John Ritter, you can’t, and you don’t. His part was not re-cast. Instead, they filmed some very good episodes dealing with the death of a beloved husband and father. I have eternal admiration for the cast members who struggled through what had to be a difficult filming experience. It was obvious they loved not just the character, but the person.
In one episode, Sagal says to her father, played by the late James Garner, “Why did this happen? We didn’t deserve this!” He replies, “That’s because we live under the impression that we get what we deserve. If I got what I deserve, I’d never have you and this wonderful family in my life. You just have to be thankful for the time you have left with people, and always let them know how you feel.”
The show ran for two more years, with David Spade (as a cousin) and Garner handling most of the funny business, but it was never the same. John Ritter was a gifted comic actor, and in real life a husband, father and brother who would be greatly missed. I’m glad that cable TV, DVDs and YouTube allow us to continue enjoying his work today.