John Ritter: Digital Press/NEWSCOM
Gary Susman
September 12, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s why we’ll remember John Ritter

John Ritter was the lightest of light comedians, so light that his effervescent work seems to vanish before your eyes. He left behind an enormous body of work, much of it existing only in the memories of TV viewers — there were countless TV guest spots in which he proved a versatility and range that extended well beyond the pratfalls and double-takes he executed so deftly in his Emmy-winning role of Jack Tripper. His hapless ”Three’s Company” bachelor, the king of look-but-don’t-touch, will be the role he’s most remembered for; even his starring role as a Mr. Roper-ish dad on last season’s ”8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” is a conscious echo of ”Three’s Company” that plays like Jack Tripper’s karmic comeuppance. But there were other roles, other sides to him as a performer — and he was always performing, even off the set — that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Ritter the revolutionary ”Three’s Company”’s winking innuendo seems tame in the age of ”Sex and the City,” but in 1977, the show was considered scandalous. Now, it looks pioneering in ways its makers probably didn’t intend. Well before Jerry and Elaine, or Harry and Sally, Ritter proved that men and women could be platonic friends. Note also that Jack’s landlords objected more to the idea of a man living with two women than having a gay tenant. To his credit, Ritter would play the ”gay” Jack without camping or mincing — unless he wanted to have some fun at Mr. Furley’s expense. Later, in the spinoff ”Three’s a Crowd,” Jack and his live-in girlfriend became the first primetime unmarried couple living in sin. In 1984, this was still too radical for a lot of viewers, and the show lasted only a year.

Ritter the movie star Ritter was never able to translate his small screen fame to similar success on the big screen. Only ”Skin Deep” made use of his gifts for romantic farce, but who remembers anything from that movie except the glow-in-the-dark condom scene? And the less said about the ”Problem Child” movies, the better. Still, he had some worthy turns on screen in some un-Jack-like parts — the laid-back U.S. president in the underrated comedy ”Americathon,” the stuffy professor dad in last year’s ”Tadpole,” and a nerdy gay man trapped in a small town (and an unfortunate haircut) in ”Sling Blade,” a role written for him by his ”Hearts Afire” costar Billy Bob Thornton.

Ritter the genre-buster In 1987, Ritter starred in Steven Bochco’s series ”Hooperman,” a show so unclassifiable they had to invent a new word for it: ”dramedy.” He played a cop/landlord dealing with oddball tenants and quirky police cases. These days, it’s not unusual for a show like ”Monk” or ”Ally McBeal” to mix comedy and drama without cuing the viewer with a laughtrack, but back then, viewers didn’t know what to make of it. Still, the show managed to last two seasons and was a cult and critical favorite.

Ritter the pinch-hitter Ritter was the king of guest spots, starting in the early ’70s, when a recurring role as a minister on ”The Waltons” got him noticed by the ”Three’s Company” producers. Among his countless guest parts and walk-ons were memorable dramatic turns on ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (as a suitor of Buffy’s mom who kept a scary secret), ”Felicity” (as Ben’s manipulative, alcoholic dad), and ”Ally McBeal” (as a suitor of Ally’s with a silly walk worthy of John Cleese). He was expected to reprise his turn on ”Scrubs” as J.D.’s swingin’ divorced dad again this season.

Ritter the raconteur I got to interview Ritter once, and he was unstoppably hilarious, full of unprintable stories, including the oft-repeated anecdote about the ”Three’s Company” episode where he supposedly showed a little too much Jack through his jogging shorts during a pratfall. He showed that side often on talk shows and in print interviews, like one he did with last year, where he said he didn’t want to do a ”Three’s Company” retrospective special: ”I can’t see sitting in rocking chairs and going ‘Remember the time we sat on that f—ing dog and Mr. Furley came in and kicked you in the nuts?”’ He may not have wanted to remember, but everyone else did.

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