But the 1990 comedy "Problem Child" was a surprise hit and introduced him to his second wife, co-star Amy Yasbeck, whom he began dating in 1994, a year after he separated from Morgan. They married in 1999, and had a daughter, Stella, who celebrated her 5th birthday Thursday, the day Ritter died.
After a series of low-profile projects, Ritter teamed up with Thornton, his "Hearts Afire" co-star, who was making his feature directorial debut in 1996's independent drama "Sling Blade." Ritter was almost unrecognizable in glasses and short hair as the gay friend of a Southern mother and her son. The portrayal demonstrated his versatility, and earned him the best reviews of his film career.
The next year brought him more notice when he played a recurring role as client-turned-love-interest George Madison on "Ally McBeal."
In 2000, he won over preschool viewers as the voice of "Clifford, the Big Red Dog" on the popular PBS animated series.
Along with his success on "8 Simple Rules," Ritter's movie career was flourishing. He appeared in the independent film "Manhood," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and will be seen opposite Thornton in "Bad Santa," opening in November.
Still, Ritter was clearly excited about his new TV project, and being back in the spotlight. Appearing with the cast last year at a Pasadena hotel in front of a gathering of national television reporters to discuss the series, Ritter literally bounded into the ballroom, and was animated but characteristically self-deprecating as he greeted and addressed the group.
When one reporter asked the actor if he felt any special anxiety about the new show, Ritter quipped, "The anxiety is, what's Episode 2?"
In addition to his wife, oldest son, youngest daughter and brother, Ritter is survived by children Carly and Tyler. Funeral services are pending.