Thursday, September 15, 2011

Another Bad 9/11

September 11 wasn't a great day for Amy Yasbeck, either. Nor for any of us who loved John Ritter---and that's a whole lot of folks.

The September 11 I refer to wasn't the 2001 version, which was horrific. It's the September 11 that occurred two years later.

It was 9/11/03 when we lost Ritter, the actor. And when Yasbeck, also an actor, lost her husband.

Ritter was starring in the successful ABC comedy "8 Simple Rules" when he collapsed on the set and died several hours later, thanks to a leaky aorta. He was 54 years old.

Bio had a special about "Three's Company" the other day---maybe purposely on the 11th because that was the date of Ritter's death eight years ago. The special was a very cool look back on the history of the show, filled with clips and behind-the-scenes info.

It was "Three's Company," of course, that introduced us to Ritter as Jack Tripper, the pretend-gay roommate of blonde bombshell Chrissy Snow and sensible, attractive brunette Janet Wood---played by Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt, respectively.

For eight years on "Three's Company," Ritter stumbled, bumped, smirked and flirted his way around the southern California apartment. It was Somers, actually, who became the biggest star initially (gracing dozens of magazine covers), but after she left following season four due to a contract dispute, it was clear that the reason the show continued to thrive was because audiences loved Ritter.

And what wasn't there to love? Ritter's Tripper was, at the same time, goofy, clumsy, big-hearted, smart and funny.

"Three's Company" was one of the few sitcoms that succeeded almost entirely on the plot device of the bedroom farce. The show's storylines were laced with sexual innuendo and no matter which landlord the three had (Norman Fell/Audra Lindley or Don Knotts), the assumption was always that something naughty was going on behind closed doors, a feeling that was propagated by the dialogue heard from behind those doors.

It was a guilty pleasure of the late-1970s, early-1980s.



But the glue was Ritter, whose flair for physical comedy reminded us old-timers of Dick Van Dyke, with the pratfalls and funny facial expressions.

Ritter wasn't particularly tall, and so he didn't have the long legs that work so well in physical comedy, a la Van Dyke, Chevy Chase and John Cleese, but he was limber and talented.

It wasn't until after "Three's Company," when Ritter began branching out, that we saw how gifted he was as an actor, period. He could do drama, we found out. He could do a love story. He could play a bad guy.

But there was something comforting about seeing Ritter return to his comedic roots when he returned to TV with "8 Simple Rules," about a sportswriter who had written a book, "8 Simple Rules to Date My Teenage Daughter." The book, written by Bruce Cameron, was real. The show took place in metro Detroit.

The show was becoming a hit and had just started its second season when Ritter took ill and died.

His widow, Yasbeck, sued, claiming that Ritter's condition was improperly diagnosed in the crucial, initial moments of his taking ill. According to Wikipedia, "several of the defendants have settled out of court for a total of $14 million, including Providence St. Joseph, which settled for $9.4 million. On March 14, 2008, a jury split 9-3 in favor of the doctors, clearing the physicians of any wrongdoing."

Yasbeck's birthday is September 12---they day after her husband died.

In the Bio special, Fred Silverman, the longtime TV executive who first brought "Three's Company" to the screen, lamented that Ritter's untimely death robbed us of someone who really could have been great.

He's right.

As terrific as John Ritter was, at age 54 he should have had a couple decades more left in him to entertain us, cutting across all genres.

That would have been great.

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