Avid neediness — a kind of hyperalert state of being in which a man wants desperately to be liked, to be desired, to be safe — was John Ritter’s stock-in-trade, whether he was sly Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, a lonely small-town gay man in Sling Blade, or a put-upon dad in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. His was an extremely tricky persona to make funny or poignant without coming off as merely pathetic. Yet turning desperation and furtiveness into quick-witted comedy is precisely what made Ritter welcome in so many millions of homes, and what makes his shockingly premature death on Sept. 11 at the age of 54 — the day of his daughter Stella’s 5th birthday, six days before his own 55th — so cruel. This underrated master of comic timing could not have passed away at a more unjust, untimely moment.
Ritter became ill due to an aortic dissection — a break in the artery that carries blood from the heart — on the set of 8 Simple Rules…. Says one of the show’s executive producers, Flody Suarez: ”He was both parental and a peer to the kids [on the show]. He talked to them about things they would never talk to their parents about. But they would talk to John about it because John was both a friend and a mentor…. He was always watching out for everybody to make sure that they had a good experience. Nobody does that in this town.”
With Rules, he had entered a new stage in a long and varied career, one characterized both by pop-iconic status and the work ethic of a plow horse. The pop-cult fixture was, of course, Jack Tripper, that randy but sofa-stumbling straight man passing as gay to save a few bucks on rent and remain in the Company of two ’70s cuties, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt. The plow-horse part? Well, in between his star-making stint spent fooling landlords Norman Fell and Don Knotts on Three’s Company and his resurgence as the essential ingredient of 8 Simple Rules…, Ritter starred in everything from a Steven Bochco dramedy (Hooperman) to a snappy but short-lived sitcom that costarred a then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton (Hearts Afire) to schlock movies like Bride of Chucky and Problem Child (on whose set he met actress Amy Yasbeck, who became his second wife after his divorce from actress Nancy Morgan in 1996).
His father, singing cowboy Tex Ritter, was known for his drawling, comfortable charm, and while John was equally likable, he didn’t inherit his father’s easygoing manner. Just the opposite: There was a manic edge to John Ritter’s humor, a frantically beseeching quality, that made his handsome-young-man image distinctive. It was pretty clear, watching Three’s Company, that Ritter had sized up his farcical role, his mediocre punchlines, and the emphasis on Somers’ comeliness, and resolved to get attention on his own termsthat is, by injecting as many physical gags as possible into the series. Ritter got laughs by rocket-boosting the dialogue with neck-snapping double takes and fearless pratfalls that punctuated scenes like a human exclamation point.