John Ritter, actor and comedian best remembered for his portrayal as nice guy Lothario Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, died ten years ago today of a heart ailment.
Ritter was one of those rare actors who seemed to possess all the right adjectives and descriptives, both seemingly as an actor, a personality, and off screen. Charming, irresistible, likeable, with man next door looks, he was like Buster Keaton meets James Stewart or Cliff Robertson as played by Charlie Chaplin. Ritter was able to successfully brew together these elements and create an end result of a persona in films (even when he was being a regular lout, as in Blake Edwards’ semi-successful sexy comedy Skin Deep), that comes across effusing with effervescent charm mixed with humor that made for a concoction that was enjoyed by all audiences of ages and stripes.
On Three’s Company, Ritter exhibited a kind of loose, puckish, boyish charm, with a innocuous devilish streak and a passion for women and cooking. The ridiculously hackneyed plot, a man has to pretend (at least in the early seasons of the show) to be homosexual so the landlord of the building where he dwells with two young nubile yet ditzy (Suzanne Sommer’s lost deer in the headlights portrayal of Chrissy) and erudite and earnest (Joyce Dewitt’s sturdy Janet) women can be accepting of the situation. Premiering as a mid-season series on ABC-TV in early 1977, and was an American adaptation of a British sitcom entitled Man About the House, Three’s Company was a smash success by autumn of that year. Audiences flocked to their television screens to see the bawdy, farcical, doors slamming and constant frustratingly yet hilarious misunderstandings coupled with the “Me Decade” lifestyle cognoscenti that made up hedonistic existences that were common stock and trade in the 1970s.
In the center of it all was John Ritter’s portrayal of Jack Tripper. Tripper was a swinger in his own mind kind of a guy, a Mr Softee alpha male wannabe who was earnest, naïve, sometimes tried way too hard, always seemed to get in over his head, but ultimately was a loyal, trustworthy, and all around nice guy — again, qualities that seemed to circulate inside of John Ritter as well.
But another all together unexpected quality of the Ritter craft was his ability for slapstick. Pratfalls, physical timed gags of the old school variety, things straight out of Milton Berle or Sid Ceasar’s era, were not uncommon on the show, and again, right in the center of it was Ritter, who gave flawless and sometimes even hilariously thrilling performances, straight out of the time of the cinematic vibes of guys like Harold Lloyd and The Three Stooges. Witness the beauty and comedic brilliance of Ritter at work in classic Three’s Company episodes when Tripper has to deal with an unruly hammock that he’s right in the middle of, or during a pie fight at a food competition, or especially, and what may be the piece de resistance of the entire Tripper adventures (which ran for seven Seasons overall and won Ritter an Emmy Award), may be the episode when Jack does a performance of dancing that includes all styles, from Samba to Rhumba to Waltz, even some soft shoe and performed loopily and crazily by Ritter/Tripper at a glitzy cocktail party and done with a perfect balance of real dancing skills and consummate timing and execution. Hands down, it stands as possibly THE highlight of Ritter’s career.
And that career wasn’t just tethered to a hit television show. Ritter also appeared in a few motion pictures, pictures that are more forgotten today than not, but were at best adventurous projects that showcased a range and scope. Some of the standouts include the little seen, but fun actor-turned-crime-fighter bittersweet NYC tale Hero At Large, a film released in 1980 during the peak of Ritter’s career on television, and which yet again, showcased Ritter’s protagonist as the nicest guy in the world.
Other film projects included the bizarre comedy Americathon, the supernatural laugh/yawn fest Problem Child films, and his creepy, unsettling characterization in Sling Blade. Ritter stayed also in television post-Three’s Company. Shows like Hooperman and 8 Simple Rules kept him in the public eye and again, gliding the lily of taking chances which sort of went against the grain of how he was most publicly received. It was during filming of an episode of 8 Simple Rules that he succumbed to complications from suffering a ripped aorta in his heart, something which had been unknown to Ritter and his family that there was even a condition in Ritter which could have caused that issue to occur.
Like James Gandolfini’s sudden and tragic death a few months ago, the same sort of shock waves rippled amongst the acting and fan community in the wake of Ritter’s passing. There’s still a sort of shock that his presence is not with us anymore, and now for a decade. He still seems as if he is here in a way, he had that sort of comic individualism that sort of keeps his style still firmly entrenched with him, a style all his own.
The beauty of what John Ritter did was not only make you laugh, and laugh pretty damned hard at times, but did it in a way that made you feel side by side with him. Many comedians, as brilliant as they are, seem to make the audience laugh high atop of where they are sitting, they have no connection with the audience, the audience goes along with the comedy sham, a kind of self-conscious ploy with a sly wink. But with Ritter, it seemed like the old shoe of comedy, the warmth of his portrayals and the clear eyes, showed a friendly, buddy like quality to him, and it made almost whatever he did fun and lighthearted. When he was in peak form, he never skipped a beat, never missed one too. John Ritter had the organic sensibility as an actor and as a comedian, to sort of have that uncanny sense of what the audience wanted and expected of him. And he was always more than happy to oblige.
Remember the great John Ritter today, never take for granted the wonderful gifts of joy and whimsy and laughter that he gave us, for those kinds of emotions are fossilized forever by the majesty of what immortality can do for an artist and what we as an audience can do to keep that majesty alive for all time.