Emmy Award-winning actor John Ritter, who died unexpectedly Thursday night, had a television career marked by comic bookends. His most famous role was as a girl-chasing bachelor. And he was enjoying renewed success as a harried father chasing off the boys who pursued his two teenage girls.
In between, Ritter, 54, bounced between comedy and drama, playing such diverse characters as a dying Vietnam veteran, the author of "The Wizard of Oz," an earnest San Francisco policeman and a gay Southern shop employee. The youngest son of country and western singer and actor Tex Ritter worked steadily, appearing in more than 100 TV series and movies, feature films and stage plays.
But Ritter, who would have celebrated his 55th birthday Wednesday, remains best remembered as Jack Tripper, the closeted heterosexual who shared a Santa Monica apartment with two sexy single women on ABC's hit sitcom "Three's Company."
The actor's loose-limbed physical comedy and verbal antics earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Though never a favorite with critics, "Three's Company" aired for seven seasons and was a top 10 favorite for most of its run. It is currently in reruns on cable's Nick at Nite.
"It wasn't taken seriously," said Larry Jones, general manager of TV Land and Nick at Nite. "The way critics often represent a TV show is not necessarily how the public feels about it."
Ritter returned to that style of comedy with his latest ABC sitcom, "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," engaging "a whole new generation of viewers again with the same talent he had 20 years ago," Jones said.
Ritter was in rehearsals for the fourth episode of the show's second season when he fell ill on the set at the Disney Studios in Burbank. Doctors at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center said the cause of death was a dissection of the aorta, resulting from an unrecognized flaw in the main artery going out of the heart. The condition is undetectable, according to medical experts.
The actor had been taken to the hospital, located across the street from the studio, after complaining of nausea and possible food poisoning.
Henry Winkler, Ritter's friend and frequent co-star who was guest-starring in the episode scheduled to shoot Friday, said the actor had been in a good mood during the day: "The last second I saw him on the set yesterday, we were joking. We worked out a bit in a scene, and we laughed. I thought, 'This is going to be great.' "
On ABC's "8 Simple Rules," Ritter starred as a sportswriter who works at home and deals with his three children while his wife returns to work. The sitcom, which was scheduled to return for its second season Sept. 23, is one of the few bright spots on the struggling network's prime-time schedule.
The same network made Ritter a household name in "Three's Company," the American version of the British hit "Man About the House." He won the role over 50 other young actors. His co-stars, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt, also gained fame on the racy comedy.
Don Nicholl, one of the creators and executive producers of the series, once said: "John did it perfectly, turning sex into a souffle. The beautiful part of it all is that we somehow put together a cast of naturally kooky people."In a downside to the stardom that "Three's Company" brought them, though, Ritter and DeWitt engaged in a highly publicized feud with Somers after she staged a failed holdout for more money. Her co-stars refused to speak to her or work with her, and Somers filmed her few scenes each week on a different stage. The feud was dramatized earlier this year in an NBC TV movie hosted and co-produced by DeWitt.
When Somers left the show in 1981, "there were a lot of hurt feelings," Ritter said in a People magazine interview last year. The two didn't speak again until 1996, when the actress was recovering from breast cancer. Ritter contacted her, saying the situation "made me realize that all I care about is how happy and healthy she lives her life." Somers sent him a thank-you note, and he called her, saying, "I miss you, I love you, I'm sorry."
After "Three's Company" ended in 1984, Ritter was given his own short-lived spinoff, "Three's a Crowd," in which Tripper became a restaurant chef.
The same year "Three's Company" premiered, Ritter married his first wife, actress Nancy Morgan. The couple had three children, including actor Jason Ritter, 24, a co-star on CBS' new series "Joan of Arcadia."
Ritter also starred in the TV series "Hooperman" and "Hearts Afire," such TV movies as the drama "Unnatural Causes" and numerous feature films, including his career-shifting performance as a gay store employee in good friend Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade." He performed frequently on the stage, including appearances in Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party" at the Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway.
Production on "8 Simple Rules" shut down immediately, and Friday's scheduled filming in front of an audience was canceled.