In an extraordinarily risky move, ABC executives have decided to continue production on 8 Simple Rules... without John Ritter. On Tuesday, Sept. 16, one day after friends and colleagues said goodbye to the popular TV star at a Los Angeles funeral, ABC announced that 8 Simple Rules... will return to the air on schedule Sept. 23 with three new episodes featuring Ritter (the actor was filming the fourth when he became ill). The comedy will then go on hiatus for an undetermined period as executive producers incorporate his death into the show. Subsequent episodes will face the daunting task of attempting to draw laughs from Cate's (Katey Sagal) newfound status as a single mom to three teenagers. No further changes will be made, despite speculation that '70s sitcom star Henry Winkler would join the cast as a surrogate dad. ''Our first instinct was that we should retire it,'' says ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne, who says she never considered replacing Ritter. ''But the more we talked about it, the more we saw the impact of his death -- not just on our family but on families across the country. Here was an opportunity to do something that could maybe break out.'' And so, with the blessing of Ritter's widow, Amy Yasbeck, the show will carry on without its star.
This isn't the first time a series has gone on after losing a star. In 1977, NBC considered canceling Chico and the Man when Freddie Prinze took his life. Instead, Gabriel Melgar, 12, was added to the cast as a new ''Chico'' for Jack Albertson's Man, but the comedy never recovered; it was canceled a year later. In 1991, CBS had to reconceptualize its comedy The Royal Family after star Redd Foxx died less than a month into the first season. His death was written into the show -- and actress Jackee was added -- but the sitcom didn't last beyond the season. That's why few are optimistic about the future of 8 Simple Rules.... ''Ritter was the show,'' says media buyer Steve Sternberg. ''He was the comedic voice. Without him, it's not the same. It's totally different. They're gonna lose a lot of people who just tuned in to [see] him.'' Says a writer-producer on another ABC comedy: ''People look at sitcoms for comfort. To watch a sitcom and be reminded of the tragic death behind it -- who's gonna wanna watch that? It's sad.''
But ABC executives are steadfast in their decision to keep 8 Simple Rules... -- the third-place network's second-most-watched comedy. Says Lyne: ''We've said this is uncharted territory...going someplace I don't think another show has. But it feels like the right way to go. We are committed.''
Three's Company (the initial episodes): See the young Ritter bang into a door or ogle Suzanne Somers with priapic perfection, and you know this guy's got it all figured out.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Dec. 8, 1997 episode): Buffy's mom dates a sweet fellow who's really...a killer robot! Ritter at his most knowingly self-parodic.
Felicity (Seasons 3-4): As Scott Speedman's alcoholic dad, Ritter nailed a man caught between recovery and a selfish insistence upon being forgiven.