Family & Companions
One of the most popular TV stars of the late-1970s, John Ritter enjoyed a diverse career right up until his tragic death in 2003. The son of famed country-western star Tex Ritter, he first emerged with dozens of small television guest spots, including a recurring role as the serious-minded Reverend Fordwick on "The Waltons" (CBS, 1971-1981). Ritter rose to fame on the small screen as the irascible, klutzy Jack Tripper on the hit sitcom "Three's Company" (ABC, 1977-1984), where his boyish charm and affinity for physical comedy made him an audience favorite. While television projects like "Hooperman" (ABC, 1987-89) and "Hearts Afire" (CBS, 1992-95) provided moderate success, it was Ritter's transformative performance in close friend Billy Bob Thornton's drama "Sling Blade" (1996) that garnered the actor a level of professional respect he had not previously enjoyed. With his career invigorated, Ritter moved on to a slew of supporting film roles and TV guest appearances until the family sitcom "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" (ABC, 2002-05) once again provided him a showcase for his inimitable comedic skills. Although his untimely death cut short his still vibrant life and career, the beloved actor lived on in the memories of the friends, family and the audiences he entertained for decades.
He was born Jonathan Southworth Ritter in Burbank, CA, on Sept. 17, 1948, to actress Dorothy Fay and pioneering country musician and "singing cowboy" movie star, Tex Ritter. A middle boy, Ritter also had an older brother Tom, who suffered from cerebral palsy, a disease that would play heavily into the comic's later charitable work. It may also have informed the mix of public consciousness and entertainment engendered in his two professed idols, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and comic Jerry Lewis. He attended Hollywood High School, where he was elected student body president. While he matriculated at the University of Southern California, he selected psychology as a major. It was not until Ritter took a class taught by renowned acting teacher Nina Foch that his path crystallized. He switched his major to theater arts, cut his teeth with a stage debut at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival in 1968, graduated in 1971 with a Fine Arts degree in drama, and went on to study with legendary acting teacher Stella Adler at the Harvey Lembeck Comedy workshop.
Ritter quickly racked up an impressive résumé for an aspiring actor, with some early supporting movie roles and, soon, a kaleidoscope of broadcast network TV guest shots. He earned his first TV role in a guest-starring capacity on the short-lived Burt Reynolds cop series "Dan August" (ABC, 1970) and a supporting role the next year in one of Disney's then-popular live-action romps, "The Barefoot Executive" (1971). The following years would see him become an on-call guest star for what became a who's who of signature seventies shows, including "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983), "Kojak" (CBS, 1973-78), "The Bob Newhart Show" (CBS, 1972-78), "Barnaby Jones" (CBS, 1973-1980), "The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-78), "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (CBS, 1970-77), "Starsky and Hutch" (ABC, 1975-79), "Rhoda" (CBS, 1974-78) and "Hawaii Five-O" (1968-1980). He scored his first recurring role on a series as the joyless young minister Reverend Fordwick on CBS' slice of depression-era life, "The Waltons" (1972-1981).
Ritter's leap to his own signature 1970s TV stint would land 180 degrees from Rev. Fordwick. In 1976, ABC programming chief Fred Silverman greenlit producer Don Taffner's proposed adaptation of Thames Television's U.K. hit "Man About the House" (ITV, 1973-76), and Silverman, himself familiar with Ritter's "Waltons" work, requested he read for the lead. Ritter was working with Oscar-winning director Peter Bogdanovich in the latter's movie "Nickelodeon" (1976) when he landed the audition, and Bogdanovich said he hoped he would not get the part, remarking "What if it's a hit? I'll never be able to use you again!" Unfortunately for the director, Ritter landed the part of the randy, goofy yet boyishly charming culinary school student living platonically with two attractive women. The then-risqué concept - at least for U.S. network TV at that time - went through two pilots and a turnover in female leads until Silverman and Taffner arrived upon the final roommate casting: Joyce DeWitt as the spunky, sensible Janet and Suzanne Somers as the archetypal curvaceous, ditzy blonde, Chrissy. The show debuted as a mid-season replacement in March 1977 as "Three's Company," an unrelenting comedy of errors, capering hijinx, multiple double entendres and confused identities. Much of the latter stemmed from the show's "twist" - that to convince repressed, curmudgeonly landlord Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) it was kosher for Ritter's Jack to share an apartment with members of the opposite sex, the roommates would need to affect a perpetual feint that he was homosexual.
The shenanigans that ensued in order to keep Jack's secret in spite of his horndog inclinations struck a chord with audiences. The show hit No. 11 in network primetime ratings in its first season; a signal win for the long-underperforming ABC. Anchored by Ritter's disarming prowess at physical comedy, the show then bounced up to No. 3 for the 1977-78 season. Fairly maligned by critics for its repetitive plot contrivances and insipid script gags, as well as targeted by a burgeoning religious right for its salacious innuendo - the Rev. Donald Wildmon even launched an advertiser boycott on behalf of his nascent National Federation for Decency, a precursor to his later watchdog group, the American Family Association - the show nevertheless vaulted Ritter to the television A-list. Later in 1977, he joined ABC's other sitcom superstar Henry Winkler - "The Fonz" from "Happy Days" (1974-84) - in hosting the United Cerebral Palsy telethon, with brother Tom Ritter as co-emcee, beginning a 15-year run as the event's celebrity spokesman. A hot commodity and on the cover of People magazine seemingly every other week - as well as earning a genuine fan in Lucille Ball, queen of comedic pratfalls - Ritter started racking up his first feature film leads, albeit in the forgettable outings "Breakfast in Bed" (1978) and "Americathon" (1979). In 1981, a more prestigious, if ill-fated, project, Bogdanovich's "They All Laughed" cast him opposite former Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. Sadly, the studio pulled the film from release after Stratten was brutally murdered by her estranged husband in 1980, devastating Ritter and his close friend Bogdanovich, who happened to be in love with and dating Stratten at the time of her murder.
Back on set of "Three's Company," a new dynamic was emerging. Yes, John Ritter was still receiving his share of applause from the studio audience, but Somers was quickly becoming the fan and media favorite. This reversal of fortunes would soon mire the show in the most tabloid-enabling showbiz flap of the era. The show scored ABC the No. 1 and No. 2 slot in the Nielsen ratings in the 1978-79 and 1979-1980 seasons, respectively, but with contract re-negotiations beginning in 1980, Somers and her husband-manager, Alan Hamel, decided her popularity as the show's sex symbol rated a bigger stake than the her two co-stars. In their notorious dust-up with Silverman, the couple demanded ABC up her salary from $30,000 to $150,000 per episode, as well as 10 percent of the show's eventual syndication profits. When the network balked, she began missing tapings before taking the feud public by trash-talking her producers and co-stars on talk shows. Where the three leads had reputedly become fast friends early in the show's run, the good-natured Ritter - who could get along with anyone - and especially DeWitt now refused to work with Somers. For her misguided efforts, she was effectively written out of the show, popping up only in quick segments on the phone from her sick mother's house, taped on a separate set, so the stars would not interact. Newbie actress Jenilee Harrison was brought on to replace her for the balance of the season, playing Chrissy's sister, Cindy Snow, before producers brought in veteran actress Priscilla Barnes to replace Harrison for the 1981-82 season, stabilizing the show in the Top 10. Ritter began earning some validation for his work, snaring two Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe in 1983, then finally a 1984 Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. But that year, the show's ratings dropped out of the Top 10 for the first time since its debut season, and once it was out of the Top 30, ABC pulled the plug.
Not wanting to lose Ritter, ABC greenlit a final Jack Tripper chapter - the longtime buffoon finally falls in love and spins off to the new show "Three's A Crowd" (1984-85). On the short-lived sitcom, Jack moved in with his significant other (Mary Cadorette) and started his own restaurant, with her meddlesome father (Robert Mandan) making up the threesome of the title, but the show lasted only a season. Ensuing years would see similar network attempts to field Ritter vehicles, mostly in a romantic comedy vein, but nothing quite stuck. The critically acclaimed "Hooperman" (ABC, 1987-89) came the closest, casting him as a San Francisco cop who inherits a building and must balance police work with a being a landlord, as well as a burgeoning romance with the young woman (Deborah Farentino) he installs as the super. After "Hooperman" was cancelled, he also joined the cast of ABC's "Anything But Love" (1989-1992) as a competitor for the heart of Jamie Lee Curtis. On "Hearts Afire" (CBS, 1992-95) he starred as a conservative U.S. senator's staffer, with Markie Post as his feisty, liberal love interest.
When not taping, he filled out his work schedule with a raft of lead roles in feature and made-for-TV movies, most notably Blake Edwards' ribald 1989 romp, "Skin Deep" - best known for Ritter's glow-in-the-dark condom scene - "The Dreamer of Oz: the L. Frank Baum Story" (NBC, 1990), ABC's ambitious miniseries treatment of Stephen King's "It" (1990), a reunion with Bogdanovich for his 1992 farce "Noises Off;" and two notable B-level comedies, "Problem Child (1990) and "Problem Child 2" (1992), in which he played the earnest, well-meaning surrogate dad to a son seemingly the spawn of hell. His A-list days ebbing, Ritter would spend the balance of his 1990s TV work relegated to by-the-numbers movies-of-the-week and "featured guest star" roles on popular series, but between the "Problem Child" series and "Hearts Afire," he would establish two relationships that would profoundly impact his life. He fell for his "Problem Child" co-star Amy Yasbeck, ending his 19-year marriage to actress Nancy Morgan in 1996 and eventually marrying Yasbeck in 1999. He also struck up a tight friendship with "Hearts Afire" supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton that would radically alter his longtime goofball image.
When "Hearts Afire" shuttered, Thornton brought Ritter into a small film project he was writing and directing, which was an expansion of his previous short film. "Sling Blade" (1996), a sweet but stark tale centering around Thornton's mentally challenged lead, Karl Childers, and his friendship with an impoverished young boy named Frank. The film became an indie breakthrough hit, winning a raft of awards, including a Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. But Ritter's supporting role proved nearly as eye-opening. He played Vaughan, the flame-haired, bespectacled gay discount store manager and the boss and friend of Frank's mother, whom he attempts valiantly but ineffectually to defend against her abusive boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam). Described by more than one reviewer as "unrecognizable," Ritter drew astonished raves for his performance, nearly overnight reinventing himself as a powerful character actor.
"Slingblade" would lead him to pepper his TV work with prominent supporting roles in a broad menu of movies, including the camp horror flick "Bride of Chucky" (1998), indie black comedy "Panic" (2000) and coming-of-age indie charmer "Tadpole" (2002). He expanded his repertoire further in 2000 by becoming the voice of "Clifford, the Big Red Dog" (2000-03) in PBS' series adaptation of the children's classic, for which he would be nominated for a Daytime Emmy every year of its run. Also in 2000, he reunited with old friend Henry Winkler to make his first appearance on Broadway in the Neil Simon play, "The Dinner Party," for which he won a Theatre World Award in 2001. In 2002, Ritter returned to ABC and his own regular series, this time as family man Paul Hennessey, whose sane and sensible parenting is abruptly challenged by the hormonal awakening of his adolescent progeny on "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" (2002-05).
Never a critical favorite, "8 Simple Rules" performed well enough to be renewed. The following fall, Ritter welcomed Winkler to the show's set on Disney's Burbank lot for a guest shot on the season's fourth episode. On Sept. 11, 2003, while running lines with Winkler, Ritter felt fatigued, began to sweat and excused himself. It worsened to nausea and vomiting. Winkler later heard his old friend had gone home sick. In fact, Ritter was taken to the nearby Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, where doctors diagnosed a heart attack. Yasbeck, having rushed to the hospital, found him in an ER bed, apologetic that he might miss their daughter Stella's fifth birthday celebration that day. As doctors wheeled him into surgery, she testified later, he told her he loved her in American sign language. She never saw him alive again. In surgery, the doctors discovered the cause of the heart attack, an aortic dissection - a tear in the body's primary blood vessel - a rarer, often genetic and much more serious condition. He died only mere hours after entering the hospital.
After the cast of "8 Simple Rules" was informed of their star's shocking death while still on set and word of his passing reached news outlets, virtually the entire town went into mourning. Everyone from Markie Post to Winkler to Dewitt to even the long-estranged Somers made public their devastation, with Thornton too upset to make any public statements. To say that his ABC family, which included his onscreen wife Katey Sagal, were shocked at his passing was an understatement. Not only were they forced to deal with the death of a man they all adored, they also had no idea what was now to become of their show. ABC, after some deliberation, aired Ritter's first three episodes of the season, then dealt with the tragedy on-air, continuing the show as the renamed "8 Simple Rules," starting with the family dealing with Paul Hennessey's sudden death before bringing in other actors like James Garner and David Spade to try to fill the void. Ritter appeared posthumously as an uptight department store manager in the Billy Bob Thornton black comedy "Bad Santa" (2003) and via voiceover in "Clifford's Really Big Movie" (2004). Closing credits dedicated both movies to Ritter's memory, as did an episode of NBC's hit sitcom "Scrubs," in which Ritter had previously guest-starred as the errant father of lead character J.D. (Zach Braff), also a lovable goof with a penchant for pratfalls. The following year, Ritter received a posthumous Emmy nomination for "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." Long-time friend Peter Bogdanovich, who had been scheduled to guest-star on the same episode as Winkler that fateful day, recalled to The New York Observer Ritter's disarmingly organic talents from their early work together: "There are very few people who have that extraordinary kind of naturalness... He kept it right up until the end. He had it right when I met him, when he was 20. He never seemed to be acting. It's a cliché, I guess, but he was probably the nicest guy I ever knew."
Yasbeck received $14 million in initial settlements over her husband's death, including from the hospital, but her $67 million suit over the misdiagnosis, brought to Los Angeles County Superior Court in early 2008, failed to convince a jury of negligence on the part of the attending doctors; particularly on the doctor who had conducted a body scan on Ritter in 2001 but failed to detect the condition. In the meantime, however, John's brother, Tom, was scanned for the aortic dissection and was found to have the same condition. John Ritter's death, it turned out, saved his brother's life and, no doubt, numerous others with similar heart concerns, so publicly discussed was the condition. Adding to Ritter's legacy was Jason Ritter, his eldest son by Nancy Morgan, who had already scored roles in such films as "Swimfan (2002) and "Freddy vs. Jason" (2003) while his father was alive, and was starting on his first network series, "Joan of Arcadia" (CBS, 2003-05) at the time his death. The young Ritter would go on to land a starring role on the network's short-lived comedy "The Class" (2006-07) as well as continue to hone his comic and dramatic abilities in film and on television.
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made professional acting debut on stage at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland
Film acting debut in "The Barefoot Executive"; billed ninth
Made TV debut as a guest in an episode of ABC's "Dan August", starring Burt Reynolds
Had role of Reverend Fordwicke on the CBS drama "The Waltons"
TV-movie debut in "The Night That Panicked America" (ABC)
Co-starred in Peter Bogdanovich's "Nickelodeon"
Hosted the ABC variety special "John Ritter: Being of Sound Mind and Body"
Had one of the leads in Bogdanovich's ill-fated "They All Laughed"
Hosted the syndicated special "The Singing Cowboys Ride Again"
Delivered strong dramatic performance as a Vietnam veteran who may be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange in the NBC TV-movie "Unnatural Causes"
Executive produced the short-lived sitcom, "Have Faith" (ABC)
Had title role in the NBC biopic "The Dreamer of Oz: The L. Frank Baum Story"
Co-starred in the ABC miniseries "Stephen King's 'IT'"
Played the surrogate father of the "Problem Child"
Had third teaming with Bogdanovich with the backstage comedy "Noises Off"
Reprised role in the sequel "Problem Child 2"
Delivered a change of pace performance as a gay man who befriends a co-worker in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade"
Had recurring role as a client-turned-love interest for Calsita Flockhart's "Ally McBeal"; earned an Emmy nomination
Made Broadway debut co-starring with Henry Winkler in "The Dinner Party", a comedy written by Neil Simon
Starred in the L.A. production of the play "J for J", writer-director Jenny Sullivan's autobiographical play about her developmentally disabled older brother
Starred in the ABC comedy series "8 Simple Rules"
Played Bob Chipeska, a department store manager in "Bad Santa"; movie released after his death
Received an Emmy nomination ten months after his death for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter"
Voiced Clifford in the animated feature "Clifford the Big Red Dog"; movie released after his death