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Ritter, Jonathan Southworth (“John”)

Ritter, Jonathan Southworth (“John”)

(b. 17 September 1948 in Burbank, California; d. 11 September 2003 in Burbank, California), quirky, boy-faced Emmy-winning actor whose comically clumsy gestures earned him popularity during his career, which blossomed in the 1970s when he helped turn the situation comedy Three’s Company into one of television’s top-rated shows.

Ritter was the son of entertainers. His father, Tex Ritter, was one of the best-known singing cowboys in western movies, and his mother, Dorothy Fay (Southworth), starred at Tex’s side. Though Ritter’s parents were successful actors, they did not encourage him or his older brother to enter the business. “But John was always playing a part, even as a little boy,” Dorothy Fay noted in an interview published early in Ritter’s career. “When he played baseball he’d pretend he was one of the Dodger stars, impersonating Don Drysdale or Maury Wills.”

Ritter’s comedic bent showed up early and often. By the time he was twelve, he had produced his first movie, a parody of the popular television western Bonanza, which he dubbed “Bananas.” When a teacher requested that Ritter produce a history report on Paul Revere’s ride, he chose to write it from the horse’s point of view. Naturally charismatic, Ritter was student body president at Hollywood High School, graduating in 1966.

As a high school all-star, Ritter dreamed of playing professional baseball; he wanted to be a Dodgers first baseman. But even on the diamond, Ritter concentrated on comedy just as much as hitting the ball. “I’d go for laughs, whether I hit a home run or struck out,” he explained during an interview. “Winning didn’t interest me.... I’ve always cared more about how you play the game and it had to be fun.”

Ritter eventually realized baseball was not for him and headed to the University of Southern California (USC) to become a psychologist, but he soon shifted his focus to drama. Ritter showed so much spark on the stage that he was invited to perform at the 1968 USC-USA Edinburgh Festival and spent a couple of summers acting in dozens of plays across England, Scotland, Holland, and Germany. He earned his BFA in 1971 and continued developing his skills under Nina Foch as well as Stella Adler, the legendary acting coach to Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. He also spent four years studying at the Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop in Hollywood, where he befriended the actor and comedian Robin Williams.

Ritter made his television debut in 1968, appearing in an episode of the police drama Hawaii Five-O. By 1972 he had earned a role as a minister on the long-running television series The Waltons. During the 1970s Ritter made guest appearances on nearly every major television series, including M*A*S*H, Kojak, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Love Boat.

With his boyish good looks and witty charm, Ritter earned the lead male role in a situation comedy called Three’s Company, which debuted in 1977. Ritter made a name for himself as the peculiar but pleasing Jack Tripper—a fun-loving bachelor who shared an apartment with two attractive women. The show turned on innuendo, double entendres, physical mishaps, and misunderstandings, as Ritter’s character ogled every woman in sight, while pretending to be gay so his landlord would allow him to have female roommates.

When Three’s Company aired, critics lambasted the show for its political incorrectness and lack of socially redeeming qualities. It earned reprimands from the Parent-Teacher Association of America and from the Reverend Donald Wildmon’s National Federation for Decency. Ritter’s comedic timing, along with that of his female costars, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt, propelled the questionable show to the top of the ratings charts. For his role Ritter won a 1983 Golden Globe award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedy/Musical Series and a 1984 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

The show ended in 1984, but Ritter’s television career was far from over. He went on to play a crime-busting detective in Hooperman (1987–1989) and starred as a senator’s aide in Hearts Afire (1992–1995). In addition, Ritter appeared in a number of supporting roles in movies. One of his most riveting performances was his portrayal of a closeted gay shopkeeper in Sling Blade (1996), directed by Billy Bob Thornton. He also appeared alongside Sigourney Weaver in Tadpole (2002), which won critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. He supplied the voice of Clifford on the Public Broadcasting System’s educational cartoon series Clifford the Big Red Dog and in a movie spin-off, Clifford’s Really Big Movie (2004). There were also some not-so-notable projects, like the horror film Bride of Chucky (1998).

Through the 1990s and early 2000s Ritter continued to play supporting roles on television in popular shows like Ally McBeal and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Ritter’s career came full circle in the early 2000s, when he was cast in the lead role on a new sitcom called 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. The show, which debuted in 2002, featured Ritter as the father of three, struggling to take a more active role in raising his kids, while his wife returned to work. The show struck a chord with viewers, earning respectable Nielsen ratings and a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New Television Comedy Series.

It was on the set of this show that Ritter collapsed and was rushed to Burbank’s Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, the same hospital where he had been born. He died hours later, on 11 September 2003, a few days before his fifty-fifth birthday, of a heart ailment called an aortic dissection, which is a break in the main artery that carries blood from the heart. He was buried at the Forest Lawn–Hollywood Hills cemetery in Los Angeles.

Though Ritter is best known for his television work, his stage career is also noteworthy; he starred in some fifty plays across the United States. In 2000 Ritter spent several months on Broadway starring in Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party opposite Henry Winkler, of television’s Happy Days fame. Ritter earned a 2001 Theater World Award for his performance.

Ritter married Nancy Morgan in October 1977; they divorced in 1996, after having three children. Their oldest son, Jason, became an actor. On 18 September 1999 Ritter married the actor Amy Yasbeck, whom he had met on the set of Problem Child (1990) and with whom he had one daughter.

Over the course of Ritter’s career he appeared in more than 25 television movies, some 30 motion pictures, and made nearly 100 guest television appearances. Ritter was a natural-born actor who supported his talent with serious training. The combination created an on-screen ease that drew people in.

Numerous articles published over the course of Ritter’s career chronicle his life and personality. Among the most informative are Al and Joanne Martinez, “I Am Terrified... All the Time,” TV Guide (20 May 1978); Phyllis Battelle, “John Ritter: Yes, He Has a Serious Side,” Good Housekeeping (March 1980); and Andy Meisler, “For John Ritter, Playing the Comic Isn’t Enough,” New York Times (30 Aug. 1987). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle (all 13 Sept. 2003).

Lisa Frick

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