At least two generations grew up watching John Ritter on their screens. From his early work, guest appearances, Emmy-winning signature role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, and headlining role in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, John Ritter graced us with his charming nature on TV. Although it’s been almost two decades since his untimely death, Ritter continues to be remembered as one of the most kind-hearted and talented actors in Hollywood.
John Ritter was a popular TV star who was also featured in movies throughout his long career that ended far too soon. His most memorable movie roles were in the Oscar-winning Sling Blade and, my personal favorite, the Problem Child series. Among his many noteworthy roles, you may not know that he played the voice of Clifford in the children’s cartoon, Clifford the Big Red Dog. John Ritter left a huge hole in Hollywood and in the hearts of his fans when he died tragically at the age of 54 in 2003.
This is John Ritter’s memorable life and career.
The Problem with Problem Child
Problem Child was released in 1990 and turned out to be a surprise success for Universal Pictures, earning $72 million with a production budget of $10 million. The most bankable star in the movie was John Ritter; however, the studio wanted a different actor to play the leading role.
The film’s director, Dennis Dugan, was friends with Ritter and wanted the Three’s Company actor to star as Ben Healy, the adoptive father. The only problem was that the studio wanted “somebody more famous,” but Dugan approached Ritter anyway. As soon as he read the script, the actor was on board. Eventually, everyone else came around. Dugan recalled, “[The producers] said to me, ‘We’re thinking Ritter is a good idea – do you think we could get him?’ and I said, maybe.”
Have no Fear…
Ritter had a recurring role on the TV show The Waltons from 1972-1978, where he made friends with child star Mary Elizabeth McDonough. During an episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now, McDonough described how Ritter saved her life: “Erin, my character, was supposed to be ‘the pretty one,’ so the message to me became this pressure to be perfect and to look perfect and to act perfect and to not make any mistakes, and that took its toll on me.”
As she grew up, the actress struggled with body issues. She went on to explain, “The wardrobe woman looked at me and said, ‘Well, do you think you could fit in the clothes from last season, or have you gained more weight?’ and it hit me just like a knife in my heart.” Luckily, John Ritter was around.
…John Ritter Is Here
It didn’t take long for Ritter to notice that his friend was going through a difficult time. One day, he approached the starlet and offered her a piece of advice. “He said, ‘No, no, I want you to start doing a journal.’ And that night, I started journaling, and it saved my life,” she admitted.
Thankfully for McDonough, she had a caring person to help lift her spirit, and it went a long way. Journaling was a great outlet for the actress to face her body image issues; today, she is a women’s activist as well as a life coach. She wakes up every day and helps people face their own set of battles, the same way John Ritter once helped her.
His Kid Broke His Trophy
In 1984, Ritter won the only Emmy Award of his career when he scored Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on Three’s Company. After taking home his well-deserved award, his then 4-year-old son broke the trophy. Jason Ritter later admitted: “My dad’s Emmy was on the shelf, and I remember sort of playing with it.”
He continued, “I’m not 100 percent sure if I broke it, or what, but it definitely was broken at a certain point… I definitely have guilty feelings and memories about it, so I think I did break it a little bit. Just the tip of the wing.” During his own acting career, Jason earned two Emmy nominations but no win yet. When he does win, he’ll probably keep an eye on his little one; Jason and Melanie Lynskey welcomed their first child in 2018.
When Jason Ritter decided to follow his father’s footsteps in acting, the star passed along some words of wisdom. The most important thing, he said, was to stay grounded no matter how your career is going. “My dad, I think one of the most important things he taught me is that sometimes the idea of celebrity, it can feel nice, but it can’t ever really take the place of true friends and family and anything like that,” Jason told People Now.
The younger Ritter went on to explain that his father was able to tune out most of the noise, so he was able to maintain a level head. “Don’t believe the bad stuff they say about you, and don’t believe the good stuff they say about you either.”
He Was Funny That Way
She’s Funny That Way is a 2015 rom-com starring Owen Wilson, Will Forte, and Jennifer Aniston. But if history had gone a little differently, John Ritter might have been leading that ensemble. Director Peter Bogdanovich began working on the film back in the ‘90s and had previously worked with Ritter in the 1981 flick, They All Laughed. He was excited to reunite with his former star by giving him the lead role.
The movie stalled, but the two men remained close. In 2003, Bogdanovich was getting ready for a guest appearance on Ritter’s sitcom 8 Simple Rules when the star started experiencing chest pains. Just hours later, Ritter died in surgery. Bogdanovich shelved She’s Funny That Way because of the grief and heartbreak of losing his friend. After running into Wilson a decade later, Bogdanovich rewrote the script and went ahead with production.
Bride of Chucky
Despite being known for his comedy work, John Ritter occasionally dipped his toes in some other genres. A great example is when he landed a role in the 1998 horror movie Bride of Chucky, the fourth installment in the Child’s Play slasher film franchise.
Ritter portrayed an arrogant and manipulative police chief who is killed by Chucky and Tiffany, two pint-sized dolls who stab him after shooting nails into his face. If that doesn’t sound gory enough, it could have been worse. During a Q&A for the 20th anniversary of the film, screenwriter Don Mancini revealed that there was yet another aspect to Ritter’s on-screen death.
“After the scene where the friend David gets hit by a truck and explode, and the van takes off and the cop car is chasing them, what you see in the film now is that the doors open and Chucky shoots the tire of the cop car to prevent them from getting chased,” Mancini revealed. “What was originally scripted there was one last payoff to John Ritter.”
The original plan was for Ritter to have nails in his face once again: “They toss his body out into the highway, and the cop car rolls over the nails, so it has a blowout and spins and explodes,” Mancini expressed. “We weren’t able to do that, unfortunately.”
Ritter complained of chest pains hours before he passed away and was rushed to the hospital where he was treated for a heart attack. After his heartbreaking and unexpected death, Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck, filed wrongful death lawsuits against two of the doctors who treated him.
She claimed that radiologist Dr. Matthew Lotysch didn’t notice an enlargement of the aorta in a body scan that was conducted two years prior. She also claimed that cardiologist Dr. Joseph Lee misdiagnosed her late husband when he arrived at the hospital on that tragic day. (The actual causes of death was a torn aorta and a large aneurysm).
Understandably, Yasbeck wanted justice for her husband’s death. Ultimately, a jury cleared both doctors and claimed that neither of them were negligent in their diagnosis and treatment of the actor. “We felt very strongly that neither Dr. Lotych nor Dr. Lee did anything wrong in this case,” the jury forewoman expressed.
That wasn’t the only lawsuit surrounding the beloved actor’s death. The other lawsuit was against Providence St. Medical Center, the hospital where Ritter passed away, and it was settled later out of court. At the end of the day, there is no evidence to prove that anyone was to blame. That doesn’t make Ritter’s death any less tragic or any less heartbreaking.
After her husband died, Yasbeck spent hours researching and educating herself on the condition that killed him. She would stay up all night online learning about the disorder and even connecting with other people who suffer from the same or similar heart conditions. She put so much energy into trying to understand the illness.
Yasbeck was inspired to create the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, designed to spread public awareness of the thoracic aortic disease. She also partnered up with Dr. Dianna Milewics from the University of Texas Medical School to create “The Ritter Rules,” which help with detecting the disease as well as treating it.
“The Ritter Rules”
Yasbeck is still passionate about her efforts to educate the public about this disorder because she knows that’s what Ritter would have wanted and would have done if he had survived. “John was that guy,” she expressed on The Early Show back in 2010.
She went on to say, “He knew that with the celebrity he had came great responsibility. And we’ve taken that responsibility very seriously by lending his name to ‘The Ritter Rules.’” In a strange and convenient twist of fortune, the Ritter Rules helped saved John’s brother, Tom Ritter, whose heart condition was detected and treated thanks to his knowledge of the actor’s disease.
Hollywood High School
Hollywood High School has a long list of famous alumni, but only a special select few were chosen to be immortalized on the massive mural called “Portrait of Hollywood” that covers the outside of the school’s auditorium. The mural was originally painted by artist Eloy Torrez in 2002, with Dorothy Dandridge, Carol Burnett, Laurence Fishburne, and Judy Garland among the famous faces depicted.
Ritter was added to the mural in 2008. His tribute was announced during a ceremony on the school’s campus, and Yasbeck and comedian Jimmy Kimmel were in attendance. Way before becoming a TV star, Ritter was the Student Body President of Hollywood High School. After graduating, he attended the University of South Carolina, where he studied theater arts.
No matter how much time has passed since his death, his co-stars continue to sing the actor’s praises. In 2015, Ritter’s Three’s Company co-star Suzanne Somers dedicated her performance on Dancing with the Stars to the deceased actor. Kaley Cuoco played Ritter’s daughter on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules, and her TV dad continues to hold a special place in her heart.
“Still not a day goes by where he doesn’t make me laugh one way or another,” the actress wrote on an Instagram post on the anniversary of Ritter’s passing. Zach Braff shared the screen with Ritter on Scrubs and discussed his experience working with him with fans: “He was/is a hero of mine. When I was a kid, Three’s Company was my introduction into physical comedy. He was a master.”
Feud with Suzanne Somers
In one of the biggest TV scandals of the ‘80s, Suzanne Somers was written off Three’s Company. She portrayed Chrissy Snow, the stereotypical “dumb blonde.” She got fired after an attempt to renegotiate a 1980 contract. She reportedly wanted a raise from $30,000 an episode to $150,000 an episode, which is what Ritter was raking in.
Producers refused to give her the paycheck she desired, so the actress went on strike… until they brought her back before replacing her with Jenilee Harrison. Not only did Ritter not back up his co-star, but he sided with producers because he didn’t agree with her tactics. Ritter and Somers didn’t speak for over 20 years after that.
Patching Things Up
During an episode of The Talk, Somers admitted that she and Ritter patched things up in 2003, shortly before his passing. He tracked the actress down at her salon and called with a peace offering. They were both ready to move past the unnecessary drama. Somers remembered that phone call:
“In the beauty salon, the receptionist comes over and says, ‘You have a phone call… It’s John Ritter.’ I go over and pick up the phone, and he says, ‘Listen, I forgive you.’ I had a little trouble with that, but I let that go, and I said, ‘I love you, and I’ve always loved you.’” Despite their past issues and spending decades not on speaking terms, it’s heart-warming to know they worked out their differences before Ritter died.
Daddy Was a Country Singer
Back in the ‘70s, Ritter took on small roles on shows like Medical Center, M*A*S*H, Kojak, Mannix, Rhonda, and Starsky and Hutch. The actor worked his way up in the industry, but he actually came from a show-biz family. His dad was Tex Ritter, a country music icon and singing movie cowboy in the vein of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Tex Ritter played cowboys on-screen and sang old-school country songs on Broadway, radio, TV shows, and Western movies. Some of his legendary songs include Jingle, Jangle, Jingle, The Wayward Wind, and the High Noon theme song, which received an Oscar Award for Best Original Song. Not bad for a country singer.
You Should Be a Lawyer, Son
Despite his successful career in the industry, Tex didn’t want to see his son follow in his Hollywood footsteps. Before following his entertainment dreams, Ritter’s father studied law and was hoping John would pursue a similar path. In 1972, Tex finally changed his mind when John landed his breakout role of Reverend Matthew Fordwick on the hit family sitcom The Waltons.
Rex passed away just two years later. “He liked that show,” Ritter later stated. “That was his speed. He would have hated Three’s Company. He wouldn’t have laughed at it.” It’s a good thing his father came around because Ritter’s definitely belonged in the entertainment industry.
Transitioning to the Big Screen
When it comes to his Hollywood career, John Ritter is associate with television. Starring in acclaimed popular TV shows, such as Three’s Company, Hooperman, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, Hearts Afire, and Clifford the Big Red Dog (he voiced Clifford), Ritter was a well-known TV star.
The actor also starred in quite a few movies, but unlike other actors trying to transition from TV into movies, like George Clooney, Will Smith, or Jennifer Aniston, John Ritter didn’t bring his small-screen talent into big-screen stardom. If he hadn’t died so soon, he might have been a huge movie star by now; unfortunately, we will never know.
Landing Movie Roles
Throughout his iconic run on Three’s Company, Ritter did land roles in various prominent films. He portrayed the president in the dystopian 1979 satire Americathon; in 1980’s Hero at Large, he depicted the awkward wannabe superhero; in the 1980 religious comedy, Wholly Moses!, he played the devil; and in the 1981 romantic comedy They All Laughed, he was a detective.
None of those movies ended up becoming massive hits and therefore didn’t launch Ritter into the cinema A-list. Unfortunately, neither did his post-Three’s Company films like Real Men, Skin Deep, or Stay Tuned. Problem Child was his biggest box office success earning an impressive $53 million in 1990. I can definitely understand why; Problem Child is still my favorite childhood movie.
The Billy Bob Connection
Although Ritter’s career didn’t make him a feature film leading man, he still showed up as supporting characters in several successful movies, thanks to his pal Billy Bob Thornton. The two actors first appeared on screen together in the early ‘90s CBS sitcom Hearts Afire, and they quickly became friends. The two continued to find ways to work together for years after that.
Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in the 1996 drama Sling Blade and gave Ritter a notable role in the movie. Just one year later, they were both featured in the indie drama A Gun, a Car, a Blonde. In 2003, the duo reunited for Bad Santa, which was released a few weeks after Ritter’s sudden death.
In Bad Santa, Thornton played the drinking, smoking, thieving mall Santa, and Ritter portrayed a nervous mall manager. Thornton was heartbroken that his good friend wasn’t around for the release of the film. More than a decade after his devastating untimely death, Thornton still honors his old friend and fellow actor.
In 2016, Thornton dedicated Bad Santa 2 to John Ritter, and he continued to work with the Ritters. When Thornton landed the lead in the Amazon legal drama Goliath, guess who got a recurring role as an FBI agent? John’s son, Jason Ritter. It won’t bring his friend back, but at least he got a small part of John Ritter on set.
Lucy Loved John
Despite its popularity, Three’s Company didn’t have the best reputation. The 1977-1984 series was dismissed by critics and culture watchdogs as “jiggle television,” part of a trend in which actresses wore skimpy outfits and played even skimpier characters. Charlie’s Angels was also included in this category of TV shows.
But two things redeemed Three’s Company and earned the show praise: When John Ritter took home the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series at the 1984 Emmy Awards, and when respected TV star and sitcom personality Lucille Ball admitted to being a huge fan of the show and of Ritter.
Can’t Stop Laughing… CUT!
In 1982 and 1986, Lucille Ball hosted a retrospective on Three’s Company. Ritter repaid the actress by making a guest appearance on her short-lived comedy comeback Life with Lucy. Ritter played himself, and Ball’s character accidentally injured his foot and hands, so she takes care of him at her home, and ended up performing with him in a play. Classic Lucy hijinks.
Apparently, shooting the episode was a blast. “Lucy had more fun with John Ritter than with anybody,” according to Ball’s friend Michael Stern. “During the actual filming, he broke her up. She had to say ‘Cut!’ She said that was only the third time in her life while filming a show that she actually had to say ‘Cut’ because she was laughing so hard.”
Who Wears Short Shorts
Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt weren’t the only Three’s Company stars running around wearing revealing outfits. For his iconic role as Jack Tripper, John Ritter regularly wore very short shorts, which were very much in style in the early 1980s. In a 1983 episode of the sitcom, his character walked into a bedroom, sat down on the bed, and took off his socks. It all seemed like a typical stage business until someone discovered something scandalous about it in 2001.
The episode aired in Nick at Nite, and a keen-eyed viewer noticed something that everyone apparently ignored the first time around. Evidently, the actor’s shorts were a little too short, and, for a quick second, a small part of Ritter’s anatomy was exposed. Nickelodeon subsequently edited the episode to keep everything in the actor’s pants.
Missing His Funny Best Friend
Henry Winkler and John Ritter met at ABC’s 25th-anniversary dinner back in 1978, and the two remained incredibly close friends ever since. “His brain was like a supersonic jet. You kept thinking to yourself, God, I wish I’d thought of that. Wow, how did he think of that quickly? What you never tried to do was match his funny. He’d tell the same joke, too,” Winkler explained.
“He could tell it three or four times a day, and it was as funny the first time as it was the last time he told it that day. Now that is a talent. What would he say? He would just put his hand up to his side like a Borscht Belt comedian, and he would say, ‘Try the Veal, I’m here all week.’ And he would use that phrase several times a day, and several times a day it was laugh-out-loud funny. I think about him all the time. I miss him all the time.”
Jeffrey Tambor Opening up
Jeffrey Tambor appeared in a total of three different episodes of Three’s Company playing three separate roles (four if you count the crossover pilot episode for the spinoff series The Ropers, where he played an obnoxious neighbor): “I broke John Ritter up,” he said.
“We were doing a scene [and I made him laugh]. And I remember saying, ‘This will be one of the happiest times of my career because I just broke the master up.’ He was unabashedly a physical comedian. He was unbelievable. You know silly is hard. Just ask Mel Brooks. Just ask Buster Keaton. Just ask Harold Lloyd. Just ask [the members of] Monty Python. Silly is not easy. And only the really, really brilliant ones can do silly.”
He Didn’t Inherit the Singing Genes
Although Ritter’s dad was a famous musician, he didn’t inherit his old man’s singing abilities. “My dad and I both would sing. I wouldn’t say we were ready to go on Broadway and do a big musical, but we could carry a tune, and we enjoyed singing,” Jason Ritter said. “I like a karaoke, but neither my dad nor I have that amazing deep voice that Tex had.”
After shooting the first batch of episodes for Three’s Company, producers had a theme song ready to go. It was co-written by Joe Raposo, a veteran Sesame Street songwriter, but nobody wanted to sing it. Nevertheless, they decided to take the All in the Family path and have the cast members give it a shot.
“We tried one afternoon to see if the kids could pull it off,” associate producer Mini Seawell revealed. “They didn’t want to, but they tried. They didn’t even come close.” Maybe there is a Hollywood vault somewhere with the recording of Ritter and his co-stars Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers singing the catchy Three’s Company theme song.
Although he left the world far too soon, John Ritter remains a Hollywood legend. The beloved actor was intelligent, kind-hearted, attractive, and talented. His memory will live on through his funny jokes, hilarious characters, and his four children, Jason, Noah, Tyler, and Carly Ritter.