Nod to an Old Friend

Aug 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

His last agent, Jessica Pilch of International Creative Management in Los Angeles, has a theory about why John Ritter, who died suddenly at age 54 on Sept. 11, 2003, was nominated posthumously for a Primetime Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series: “It tells you the acting community still misses him. His peers miss and appreciate him. His peers. To me, that’s the best.”

It wasn’t just his skill as an actor and a comic Picasso they missed. It was the man himself. He was that very special star who really did go out of his way for others. He did cameos, guest shots and charity benefits, especially to fight cerebral palsy, which afflicted his brother.

He loved his family most of all but gave his time generously to many others. He showed up in roles on stage, TV and film, often as a favor to a friend. A few, such as “Sling Blade,” “Bad Santa” and “Tadpole,” allowed him to showcase his dramatic talents.

Before this year Mr. Ritter was nominated five times for Primetime Emmys and won once, in 1984, as outstanding lead actor in a comedy for his role in “Three’s Company.”

By all accounts, he was nice to just about everybody. He gave autographs in restaurants and posed for pictures. He enjoyed his celebrity and shared his joy. On the job he was always willing to appear at network and affiliate meetings, working the room with a smile and a joke.

He was a loyal friend and supportive colleague. During the first season of “8 Simple Rules,” his best friend invited him to a Bruce Springsteen concert and said he was buying tickets for Mr. Ritter, too, Ms. Pilch recalled. “[Mr. Ritter] said, `No, I can’t come. There’s this young actor in my show and he’s saving me a seat. He’s doing a play.’ And they were like, `Come on, you can just say you will come to the play another night.’ John said, `No, I told him I’d be there. He’s saving me a seat. And I need to be there.’ And as much as John wanted to go to that Bruce Springsteen concert, he had a commitment. He stood by it.”

He was born Jonathan Southworth Ritter on Sept. 17, 1948. His father was Tex Ritter, a popular country singer who strongly discouraged John from becoming an actor. As a young man he went to the University of Southern California to study psychology but soon switched to theater, beginning a long love with the stage as well as with film and TV. That love was reflected back by his fans.

“I was always amazed,” recalled Ted Harbert, who was recently named president and CEO of the E! Networks. “More than anybody I can think of, John handled that level of stardom with, frankly, so little effect on who he was as a person. He just maintained his level of self. He was just always kind and decent to the very end.”

Mr. Ritter’s genius was his ability to have one leg in slapstick farce and the other in drama. His 1977 breakthrough in “Three’s Company” was a transitional event for television and the sexual revolution. For the first time, attractive, single young men and women were living under one roof, even if they were lying to get away with it. Mr. Ritter’s Jack Tripper was a little goofy, very accident-prone, always in hot water and inevitably able to charm his way out of whatever trouble found him-all the while watching Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt broadcast in jigglevision. The show shot to No. 1.

Mr. Harbert was an executive at ABC during the run of “Three’s Company,” which was based on French bedroom farce. It was broad and silly, he recalled, but Mr. Ritter made it real.

“When you would read a `Three’s Company’ script, you’d say this is silly and too broad and too big and too over the top,” Mr. Harbert said. “But John had a way. You could always believe Jack Tripper was real. It wasn’t big over-the-top comedy. John pulled it off. You actually understood who he was as a character. That was a trip. And farce is hard to do.”

While Fred Allen, Jack Paar and Bob Hope’s topical jokes no longer hold up, reruns of Mr. Ritter as Jack Tripper will delight many generations to come. His comedy in that signature role had universal appeal. While most comedy aims at one group, his was watched by grandma, mom and the kids.

Jack Benny used to say that simply making people laugh was not enough. “People can scream at a comedian and yet can’t remember anything afterward to talk about. To become successful, they must like you very much-they must have a feeling, like `Gee, I wish he was a friend of mine. I wish he was a relative.”‘

With his appeal for viewers of all generations, John Ritter was a friend we gladly invited into our homes. The Emmy voters have done us a favor by reminding us what we have lost. Our world is enriched because he came and knocked on our door.