It's 6:00 a.m. and a little over two hours ago I came across two seriously depressing news stories. First, musician Johnny Cash passed away. I gleaned the news from classicrockforums.com. Someone had posted about it. Johnny had been in ill health for many years and after the passing of his wife June Carter Cash I had a feeling Johnny was not long for this world.
But the second piece of news was a complete and utter shock.
In this person's post, they nonchalantly mentioned "John Ritter is also dead." I did a double take. Wha-? TV star John Ritter, best known for his incomparable portrayal of Jack Tripper in the sitcom "Three's Company," has also died. He was on the set of his new sitcom "8 Simple Rules..." when he fell ill. He was rushed to the hospital, where some of his fellow cast and crew members, along with wife, actress Amy Yazbeck, stayed by his side. He passed away of a heart condition that had been undetected by doctors. He was a mere 54 years old and was going to turn 55 next week.
I have but one word to say: godammit.
Other sites can give well written, thorough biographies of the man's life. I'll just write from an admirer's perspective.
Call me a cheeseball, but John Ritter, at his best, was a comic genius. Yeah, that's what I said. Comic genius. Criminally underrated. And I'm not saying that as an overly maudlin, weepy obituary. This has been a longheld belief of mine. Heir to Chevy Chase's mid-70s throne of physical comedy, Ritter's portrayal of Jack Tripper on "Three's Company" was letter perfect. The hormonal buffoon who gets himself into all sorts of ridiculous situations due to his own ineptitude...but who you can't help but love. Say what you will about the show "Three's Company"...Ritter proved time and again that his flair for perfect comedic timing, camera takes, sight gags, inflections and pratfalls was right on the mark.
But most importantly, Jack Tripper was the embodiment of a generation, and an important cultural signifier for both Generations X and Y (or whatever you want to call the latter).
Okay, I'm lapsing into pseudo-intellectual b.s. So let me put it to you straight...
Simply put, "Three's Company" was one of the first television shows I ever fell in love with. Born in 1977, I naturally missed the show in its infancy, as I was in mine. But I have strong, vivid, pleasant memories of watching the antics of Jack and the gang as a youngster, all throughout the early 1980s. I recall the last few seasons of the show vividly, as well as the ill-fated spinoff "Three's A Crowd."
"Three's A Crowd." I guess it was.
In the late '80s, Fox syndicated "Three's Company" and began rerunning it in the early evenings, along with "Family Ties" (another of my all-time favorites, but more on that another time). This only nurtured my love for the show even more. Not only did I get to brush up on the episodes I'd caught as a youngster, but I got to expose myself to all the early episodes as well. Every day I would come home from school and watch "Three's Company" and "Family Ties" back to back. I really miss those days.
I've told many folks that I've probably seen every episode of "Three's Company" at least 20 or 30 times...and that's no exaggeration. Some of those lines and scenarios are so completely ingrained in my mind that there's no escaping them.
To many, "Three's Company" is nothing but a titillating, archetypal, cheesy, third rate sitcom...a clumsy American rewrite of the British program "Man About The House," dated in both its look and its worldview. To me, it's not only a real, fond slice of nostalgia ("remember the one where...?") but also a genuine laugh-getter. Pure and simple.
John Ritter *always* made me laugh out loud. Not many people could--or can--do that.
From his dramamine and alcohol-inspired song and dance number, to getting the zipper stuck on his sleeping bag, to portraying both him and his "brother" Austin behind a couch for an inebriated Mr. Furley...it was all letter perfect. Ritter had a gentle, likeable air about him that gave you the feeling that he was doing his pratfalls and camera takes and winking at you all the while. As Jack Tripper, he was, like Chevy Chase before him, a Perfect Idiot...but somehow you didn't sense any ego behind Ritter's brand of idiocy. Chevy left SNL after one season with aspirations of Hollywood and an ego that wouldn't fit in my garage. Ritter somehow gave you the impression he was more than content to come into your home every week for years just to make you giggle. He'd trip over that couch every damn week, as long as it made you laugh.
John --looking like the third Smothers Brother--on "The Dating Game" in the '60s. Even then he had that eye of the tiger.
It was with this same spirit that I recently portrayed Prez in a local community production of "The Pajama Game." When I was given the role and told to play it as an "over the top letch caricature," there was one man who instantly sprung to mind: Jack Tripper. Sure, there were many influences that went into my performance: Martin Short, Don Knotts, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Johnny Carson, various Warner Bros. cartoons...but it was Jack Tripper--or, more accurately, John Ritter--who was my biggest inspiration. (I even blatantly ripped off his puffy cheeked, cross eyed, heavy breather "come hither" move for one of my songs). And maybe that was because, despite Tripper's lecherous and decidedly politically incorrect persona, there was a genuinely human, sensitive, good natured guy underneath. Despite his foibles and idiocy, you pulled for him. Not many people could have played it like that. Ritter did.
And it wasn't the first time I'd taken inspiration from Ritter for a stage performance. Just last November, I was in a play revolving around a southern family of gospel performers in the 1930s. When I laughed, it was pure "Austin" Tripper...a fast, repetitive "hyeh-hyeh-hyeh-hyeh!" (On closing night, I even threw in Austin's line "well I'll be a one eyed gopher in a cactus patch.")
Ritter could convey more in one look than some comics convey in their whole career. (*ahem*...Pauly Shore...)
In addition to the genuine humanity Ritter brought to the role of Jack Tripper, he also revealed real moments of sweetness, like in the episode where Janet gets hit on by a flaky dance instructor. When she rebuffs him, he tells her she doesn't "have what it takes to make it as a dancer." Jack walks in as Janet is sobbing. She tells Jack that no one will ever take her in this business and Jack says gently, with a genuine gleam in his eye, "I'll take you." Jack turns the radio on and asks Janet "may I have this dance?" They embrace as Janet continues to sob. Applause. End Credits.
Okay, I know, I am a sentimental dope. But that part always got to me.
Jack consoles Janet after being hit on by her...oh wait...
Oh sure, there will be the naysayers of Ritter's career...and of course, they have their points. Sure, there was "Problem Child 2," the lukewarm TV vehicle "Hooperman" (which received great critical reviews), the Blake Edwards sex romp "Skin Deep"..so Ritter's career wasn't unblemished. Then again, there was Ritter's bit part in "Sling Blade" and his hilarious role in the film version of "Noises Off." Fortunately, unlike, say, Bob Denver, who has continued to wear that Gilligan hat (both metaphorically and literally) since "Gilligan's Island" left the airwaves, John Ritter absolutely refused to be stuck in the past. After "Three's A Crowd" folded, Ritter--who'd already been in the business for 13 years--continued to work steadily in over 70 feature films and TV movies. His impressive accolades also include over 70 guest appearances in various television shows. By no means a bad haul for 54 all too short years.
Yeah, I don't remember that dog's name either. (Oh wait a minute...it was Bijou).
Perhaps it's unfair of me to focus solely on Ritter's work on "Three's Company," a role that probably dogged him until the day he died. But to me--and I'm sure to many people my age and a bit older--Jack Tripper was the role absolutely tailor made for Ritter, and the one he will be remembered for most fondly. If you'll forgive the analogy, it's a bit like Mark Hamill dying. (No, Hamill is not dead, don't worry). Well, okay, given Hamill's lack of a career post-"Star Wars" and Ritter's impressive resume of over 140 films, TV movies and TV guest appearances, perhaps the Hamill analogy is a little weak. But Hamill will--perhaps unfairly so--forever be known as Luke Skywalker. I'm sorry, but it's true. When he passes away, it will be in the first line of every obituary written about the man, despite his other work. But the role has so much life and legend to it that to ignore it would be like ignoring the white elephant in the corner of the room. And I think that's where the analogy stands up. Truth be told, after his tremendous role in "Three's Company," John Ritter simply couldn't have done enough ill in his career to ever make me lose affection for him.
I just found out Ritter was a Beatles fan to boot. Major bonus points.
Speaking of comparisons, there are two other funny fellows who passed away prematurely who I can't help but stop and think of fondly on this day: Phil Hartman and John Candy. Candy, the cherubic, chubby, gentle mannered funnyman, also died of a heart attack on the set of his last film "Wagon's East." I was a junior in high school and can remember how dumbfounded my friends and I were. Having been a rabid SCTV fan since the late '80s and a fan of several of his films, it hit me especially hard. Hartman, another comic genius in his own right, passed tragically in 1998...shot in his sleep by his wife, before she committed suicide. I was, and still am, completely stunned by Hartman's death, having grown up with his work on "Saturday Night Live." It is difficult to have grown up being entertained by someone only to have them tragically taken away at an early age. To this day, whenever I see Candy or Hartman's work, I often forget they are no longer with us. That is testament to the power their work carries, to their immense spirit and total dedication to craft they brought with them wherever they went. When I see Ritter's work--particularly on "Three's Company"--I know I will feel the same.
John looking like a fresh faced kid.
To this day, there remains on my wall two TV Guide articles chronicling the life and death of Phil Hartman. I suspect articles about Ritter will shortly join them, as I honestly haven't been this bummed over a celebrity death since Hartman's passing. (Unless you count George Harrison as a "celebrity," whom I don't). Call me crazy, but I am always a little more tearful than usual when a funnyman passes away.
Perhaps this shouldn't be such a surprise. When I saw the "E! True Hollywood Story" on "Three's Company," Ritter looked a little...odd. He had gained a little bit of weight and his face looked pink and swollen. But no mention was ever made in the media that Ritter was ill, and the media is claiming that even Ritter himself was not aware of this heart condition. By all accounts, Ritter seemed to be doing fine...his re-emergence in the public eye certainly seemed to quash any feeling that he was anything other than perfectly healthy. Maybe it was just a sunburn.
Perhaps most important of all, Ritter seemed to be the genuine article. This morning, talking head after talking head is making note of the fact that Ritter was as warm, genuine and likeable off screen as he appeared to be on screen. (Take that Chevy Chase!) What is most sad is that I narrowly missed seeing the man in person less than a week ago. Disneyland's California Adventure was having its "Stars Of ABC" day. I was with two friends on Saturday evening when Ritter somehow came up in conversation. My friend said:
"Hey, DCA is having one of those 'Stars of ABC' things and John Ritter is over there."
"Cool! I wanna meet John Ritter! Do you think we can go?"
(Looks at watch...notices it's 6 p.m.) "Oh, it's probably too late. They all probably went home already."
I never got to see Ritter's new sitcom either...though I did have an interest in seeing what the man was up to nowadays. But perhaps it's better I didn't. Instead, I will always have those letter perfect images of Jack Tripper frozen in my mind. Being handcuffed to Chrissy by accident...being locked in the freezer with Mr. Furley and finally telling him he's not gay...giving an incredulous, over the top, glottal "WHAAAAAAAAT???" to the camera every week...dressing up as an old woman so he could enter that cooking contest and then putting menthol cough drops in the cookies...trying to slug that blind old Naval buddy of his and missing...getting threatened by that Italian bully who played Bernie in "Weekend At Bernie's" into making linguini in clam sauce...fighting off Lana's amorous advances...finding that damn Duchess puppet in that ventriloquist's trunk and thinking it was a dead body and running all the way back to his apartment on his knees...or the way he backed up against the kitchen door and said "PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE!!!!!!" when he thought Jeffrey Tambor was a psychopath who was going to kill him with a butterknife...
I could go on and on. And I haven't even mentioned his adventures with Larry yet!
Shots from what might be my favorite episode of all time...the one where Jack takes tranquilizers to help his nerves on the plane flight to a party with Janet...and washes them down with some booze. The song and dance was Ritter's highlight. Apparently, this was Ritter's favorite episode as well.
Dammit all, Ritter *was* a genius. I don't care what anybody says. And he made me laugh out loud. A lot. There are about ten people in my lifetime who can claim that. I could write an essay on the man's greatness. Perhaps I will. I simply can't overstate the guy's importance in my development as a performer, as a professional appreciator of comedy...and as a person. Hell, I even sneeze like Jack Tripper on a daily basis. Strange but true.
"Three's Company" always was--and always will be--one of my favorites TV shows of all time, whether it's hip to admit it or not. I'll take it in all its cheesy, innuendo-driven, earthtone, politically incorrect glory over ten thousand "Friends" episodes and any of its ten thousand clones anyday. I will buy every soddin' episode of "Three's Company" on DVD (first season: spring 2004!). And Mr. John Ritter is a big reason for that.
Thank you, John, for the many, many laughs. You are definitely missed.
Say hi to the Ropers for us.
John Reid Hatchporch." September 12th, 2003, 10:01 a.m. PST.
(Additions were made to this article on September 17th, 2003 at 5:30 a.m. PST.)
The following is a great article from "The Daily Standard" that I thought I'd post here. It's by Larry Miller who, if you don't know, is a gifted standup comic and actor. He's appeared in all the Christopher Guest films, among other works.
Larry Miller, contributing humorist
I met John Ritter for the first time two-and-a-half years ago when he and Henry Winkler were ending their hit run on Broadway in "The Dinner Party." The rest of the cast, the great Len Cariou, Penny Fuller, Jan Maxwell, and Veanne Cox were staying with it, and Neil Simon offered Jon Lovitz and me the chance to step in for Henry and John, which, as you may imagine, took almost three tenths of a second to accept.
Lovitz and I went to see it as soon as we got to New York and went up to the dressing rooms afterwards to introduce ourselves. I was taking over John's part, so I went to his room first. The door was open, and I stuck my head in. He was unlacing his shoes, and when he looked up his face shined like the sun, and he shouted, "Hey, Larry, come on in! Great to meet you!" Before I could move, he stood up and came over and pumped my hand with a big smile. Then, suddenly, his face dropped, his eyes grew wide, and he whispered with fear, "You . . . You want me out of the room?" And I laughed, and he laughed, and we were off to the races, and I remember thinking, "I really, really like this guy."
And I really did, I liked him an awful lot, but I wasn't alone. Everyone liked John Ritter, everyone who ever met him, from toll collectors to studio heads. Everyone. I know it's a cliché, when someone passes away, to insist that everybody liked the guy. I mean, even when Idi Amin was buried somebody probably got up and said, "There's a lot of love in this room tonight."
But it's true in John's case; everybody liked him. In fact, I don't think it's going too far to say that everyone who knew John Ritter loved him.
About a year after the play John was asked to be the star of a television show called "Eight Simple Rules . . . for Dating My Teenage Daughter," and the writers and the cast were great, but there is no question whatsoever that the reason the show was a hit was because the country loved John in it. He and the producers asked me to do a scene in the pilot, and that led to my being in the first season a few times. I had the best time whenever I I walked onto that set, Stage 6 at Disney. My scenes were always with John, one-on-one, and he was the funniest, most generous actor I've ever met. Coincidentally, I was onstage rehearsing another one last week, the last one, the one that will never air, because that was the one where, on Thursday afternoon, the 11th, the star of the show suddenly got sick and, such a short time later, in the same hospital he was born, died.
It's a tragedy when anyone dies before his time, by accident, or misadventure, or, as with John, an invisible, congenital thing that just waited quietly and went off. His wife, Amy, was with him as was my friend, Flody, and Flody said one second they were wheeling him along, and John was joking around to make Amy feel better, and she laughed, and then, quietly, in an instant, like an edit, he was gone.
My father passed on seven years ago, and it was so sudden I always said he was sitting next to God before his knee even hit the floor. I think it was that way with John, too.
Something kind of weird happened the day before he got sick and died, but good weird. We were on the set rehearsing one of the scenes. Coincidentally, his best friends, Henry Winkler and Peter Bogdanovich, were on the show--John was so happy about that, too--and they had just walked by, and Peter said something funny, and we all laughed. John and I were strolling down a narrow hall to where the scene was going to begin, and I turned to look at him, and he was smiling at me.
Now, I'm not a big hugger. I am with my wife and kids (a lot more than they probably want, in fact), but I'm not a big casual hugger. I think it's cheesy when men go around hugging women, and I'm just not a big guy-hugger, either. I like giving firm, sincere handshakes accompanied by a straight look in the eye, and that's that.
But at that second, when I saw John smiling at me, I still don't know why, but I just stopped walking and gave him a big hug. He hugged me back, and when I let him go he chuckled and said, "What's that for?" And I said, "I don't know. I just felt like hugging you." And he smiled again, and I hugged him again, a big one. Then we just strolled the rest of the way silently, no joking, no giggling, a quiet, easy moment.
And now he's gone, and his family is in mourning, and I'm writing this. Both my parents are gone, and God knows I love them completely and forever, but that's different, somehow. I miss John very, very much. Maybe that's why I hugged him.
There's an old Jewish saying, that every man's heaven or hell is determined by what people say about him after he dies. I think that's a good way to put it, and in John's case, it means he's sitting on the highest cloud there is.
Wherever that is, I'll bet you a dollar that everyone, and I mean everyone, is saying, "You know what? I really, really like this guy."
Larry Miller is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.
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