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John Ritter, Comedian, Dead at 54.

John Ritter was my babysitter. Not in the flesh of course, and not in the “it’s so sad his parents never spent time with him” way. I liked John. He was funny.

John Ritter died last Thursday at the age of 54. He was a televisions star. Not as much today as in 1978, although he was in the midst of a miraculous comeback on ABC’s “Eight Simple Rules…For Dating My Teenage Daughter.” John’s fame comes from “Three’s Company”, a show that ran 1977-1984. I caught it in the nightly syndication run of the New York market, where it often kept me from focusing on my homework. And since I got into this fine establishment, clearly I owe something to Mr. Ritter.

Before “Seinfeld” claimed the title of being a show about nothing, there was “Three’s Company.” It was about misunderstandings and vaguely about sex, two stalwarts of the comedic arts. Although we now know Suzanne Sommers from her deluxe Thigh-Master infomercials, she was once the apex of jiggle. Even Farah Fawcett envied her. And to the few of you not versed in the socio-political debate of “Three’s Company” criticism, Sommers left after demanding too much money and Joyce DeWitt and John Ritter were left to hold down the fort. It turned out that jiggle wasn’t the star after all; it was Jack.

This was supposed to be a mindlessly fun show; it became a hit. The premise was inspired by (read: stolen from) a British show called “Man of the House”: two girls live with a guy who pretends to be gay so that the conservative landlord will allow them to be roommates. “Three’s Company” was first turned down by all three networks (there were only three then). Finally, after some changes, ABC gave the producers a small order. And then, it was the breakout show of the year, surprising everyone. And now, when you envision the 9 subsequent years of episodes condensed, what springs to mind: Jack falling over the couch, Jack being bowled over by the kitchen door, and Jack Tripper taking a fall down a flight of stairs in the Regal Beagle.

The name of the character, of course, says it all. John Ritter was a master of the prat-fall, an ancient comedic discipline updated from the days of vaudeville to include common household props such as furniture and ladders. The mid to late 70’s produced a mastery of the art form.

Chevy Chase was on Saturday Night Live injuring himself as Gerald Ford (he was so good at mocking Ford’s buffoonery that some credit him with giving Carter the election).

Ritter’s first acting gig was as bachelor #3 on “The Dating Game” (his shtick was his humor – and yes he got picked). He guest starred on “Rhoda,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “The Waltons” (where he played a priest) before getting his break as Jack Tripper. In later years, John stretched his talents. After stepping into a few humorous but not-suited-to-his-talents film roles, including the “Problem Child” series, he came back strong in the independent hit “Sling Blade.” Taking on the character of an intense, gay man, Ritter displayed his talent as a dramatic actor. A couple of years back he starred on Broadway with Henry Winkler (ne: The Fonz) in “Dinner With Friends.”

It’s hard to define what makes a star, but catch any of his work, and you’ll see that John was one. He always stood out, and he was always a team player. Even while filming his own series he was happy to take an ensemble role as a father in “Scrubs” last year. Clearly comedy was his sweet spot. He returned last fall to ABC in “Eight Simple Rules,” which is filmed on the same sound stage where he woke up in that bathtub on the first episode of “Three’s Company” those many years ago.

Like Lucille Ball, Alan Alda, and Bill Cosby, Ritter was a master of the genre. He got a laugh with a smile and a roll of the eyes, and in 22 minutes he always delivered several visceral ones. Katy Segal, of “Married With Children…” fame, played his wife in the show. She signed onto the project without reading the script, saying that if John was involved it would be funny. Disney and ABC have decided to continue with the series, part in tribute to John’s work, part in tribute to the massive amounts of cash they will collect if it makes it to the 100th episode hallmark of syndication. In any case, it clearly won’t be the same.

In dying last week of aortic dissection, John missed his 55th birthday by a few days and his 4th wedding anniversary to Amy Yasbeck (an actress whom he met on the set of “Problem Child,” proving eternally that bad projects can lead to good things). He leaves behind four children (three from his previous marriage) who hopefully got to enjoy their father’s comedic talents. Ritter’s father was an actor, so perhaps the lineage will continue someday. Maybe one of them will pick up the torch and help save ABC, since John was poised to do it this season.

John’s three last episodes of “Eight Simple Rules” begin airing next week.

Watch them and witness the simple comedy of everyday life. Better farce then Feydeau; more honest acting than on “The West Wing.” Thank you John, for the falls, for the smiles, for the laughs. We’ll miss you, but we’ll see you in syndication.

September 22, 2003
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