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Parting company with John Ritter

The likable actor's sudden death is a personal loss to his many fans, who saw him as not only an entertainer but a friend.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2003

He was a talented actor whose range included the slapstick comedy of Three's Company, the sensitive drama of Sling Blade and the animated cartoon Clifford the Big Red Dog.

But that's not what friends and fans say they'll miss most about John Ritter, who died unexpectedly Thursday from an undiagnosed, undetectable heart ailment.

People simply liked Mr. Ritter in a way few other actors could match.

"John keeps everyone laughing," said Katey Sagal, Ritter's co-star in his comeback ABC comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, in a December 2002 People magazine interview. "He's paternal, but he's also a cool guy. He doesn't have any of that elitist energy."

Johnathan Southworth Ritter died six days shy of his 55th birthday, falling ill on the 8 Simple Rules set from what initially was thought to be food poisoning. He died at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif., the city in which he was born.

The cause of death was a dissection of the aorta - a tear in the main artery leading to the heart - which surgeons tried to correct, said a statement from Mr. Ritter's publicist Friday.

Dr. Vibhuti Singh, director of cardiology at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, said the condition kills between 2,000 and 3,000 people each year, with up to 75 percent of those affected showing few symptoms until the aorta wall tears and begins to leak blood.

"The symptom is universally pain like the chest is ripping open, more severe than even a heart attack," he said. "People can bleed out in a few minutes . . . if the rupture is big enough."

As a performer, Mr. Ritter was hailed for his nice-guy appeal and comic timing, particularly as Jack Tripper in the late '70s hit ABC comedy Three's Company, in which he played a randy guy living with two women. The wrinkle: Jack pretended to be gay to fool a prudish landlord.

"(Mr. Ritter) is a skilled actor, who makes Tripper seem like more than he is," the New York Daily News said in a 1978 review. "(Ritter) conveys the suggestion of a shrewd and diplomatic man, willing to play the fool to keep his intelligence from making waves."

Perhaps it was his likability that kept Mr. Ritter from getting the credit he deserved for a 30-year career that also included hokey comedies such as Wholly Moses and Problem Child, and horror fare such as Bride of Chucky and Stephen King's It.

The son of Western actor/country singer Tex Ritter and actor Dorothy Fay Ritter (both deceased), John Ritter started his acting career at the University of Southern California. (According to Current Biography, Ritter met Johnny Cash through his father, developing an admiration for the singer, who also died Thursday.)

By the early '70s, Mr. Ritter was scoring parts in TV shows such as Dan August, Kojak and The Waltons, on which he played Rev. Matthew Fordwick. In 1975, Mr. Ritter won the male lead in a sitcom CBS was developing from the British TV series Man About the House. ABC eventually aired the project after CBS passed on it, and Three's Company soon became the No. 1 series on prime-time television.

Mr. Ritter fell into a feud with co-star Suzanne Somers when she left Three's Company over a pay dispute in 1981. The rift lasted until 1996, when he contacted her after news spread about her struggle with breast cancer. "I thought we'd be friends forever . . . and I guess we are," Somers told People last year. "We just took a little detour."

Despite starring roles in other TV series (Hooperman in 1987 and Hearts Afire in 1992) and movies, Mr. Ritter's career turned to character work in the '90s. He played against his wholesome image in many more substantive parts.

There was Sling Blade's gay shopkeeper, the alcoholic father in the WB's Felicity, Calista Flockhart's love interest on Ally McBeal and the homicidal robot on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

PBS will continue playing episodes of Clifford, and Bad Santa, a film Mr. Ritter made with Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton, is scheduled to open Nov. 26.

ABC executives would say nothing definite on the future of 8 Simple Rules, whose modest success likely sprang from viewer affection for Mr. Ritter. At the time of his death, three new episodes had been completed, though ABC could not say whether they would air or how the series might continue to be produced without Mr. Ritter.

"All of us at ABC, Touchstone Television and The Walt Disney Company are shocked and heartbroken at the terrible news of John's passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and children at this very difficult time," the network said Friday morning.

Ritter is survived by wife Amy Yasbeck (The Mask, Wings), three adult children with ex-wife Nancy Morgan (including actor Jason Ritter) and his daughter with Yasbeck, Stella, whose fifth birthday was Thursday.

- Material from "Current Biography" and Times wires was used in this report.

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