On John Ritter and “Three’s Company”

I miss the underrated and prematurely-stolen-from-us comic actor John Ritter (1948-2003). Skilled at slapstick and adept at delivering verbal comedy, he was taken for granted in his lifetime I think, and though he has tons of terrific credits, very few of the vehicles tapped into the full might of what he was capable of.

The son of singing cowboy Tex Ritter and actress Dorothy Fay (who’d also appeared in B movie westerns), Ritter was a Hollywood brat, who’d amassed dozens of TV credits (including a recurring role on The Waltons) before his big break in Three’s Company (1976-1984) and its successor spinoff Three’s a Crowd (1984-85). .

Based on the British sit-com Man About the House, the farcical situation was that a young man (Ritter) was cohabitating with a couple of young women (Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers) out of financial necessity. But because their dirty minded landlord (Norman Fell) doesn’t approve, Ritter has to pretend that he is gay (and thus not sexually involved with the girls) whenever the landlord’s around. Muumuu-wearing Audra Lindley was hilarious as Fell’s oversexed wife.

The show is famous for its lengthy development process. Prior to making it to the screen earlier versions had been helmed by writers as distinguished as Peter Stone and Larry Gelbart. It’s astounding to me that THEIR versions were rejected, but THIS one made it to production. Even when I was a kid, I thought the writing on the show was pretty stupid, and linked it to a lot of the other junky television of the time. The saving grace (and probably the salvation of the series) was the cast. Ritter truly shone, absolutely made the most of his moment in the sun. Lindley and Fell were also much beloved (and after a couple of years, got their own spinoff series The Ropers. They were replaced by a new landlord, played by Don Knotts).

Besides Ritter the show’s breakout star was Suzanne Somers, a sort of ’70s era, California updating of a Dumb Blonde. She left the series after a few years over money issues, and was sort of insanely famous for a time. I never understood it, for I didn’t find her that beautiful or talented. It was more like she WAS the character she was playing, than that she was playing it. At any rate, this leaves poor Joyce DeWitt, who had the thankless role of “plain but perky friend”. That was unfair, because she was both attractive and an energetic and funny comic actress. When you go back and watch the show, you’re like “Oh, she was good!”

Anyway, Ritter went on to do lots of great stuff after Three’s Company wrapped. Peter Bogdanovich loved him, casting him in Nickelodeon (1976–before Three’s Company even got off the ground), as well as They All Laughed (1981) and Noises Off (1991). Bogdanovich perceived Ritter’s gifts for farce and screwball comedy. How much better for both of them if they’d been born around 1905! Ritter also played the President in Americathon (1979) and the Devil in Wholly Moses! (1980). He starred in the family comedies Problem Child (1990) and Problem Child 2 (1991). He did horror, like the original TV movie version of Stephen King’s It (1990), the campy Bride of Chucky (1998), and a 1997 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He worked with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade (1996) and Bad Santa (2003). At the time of his untimely death in 2003 Ritter was starring in another successful situation comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. He’d successfully reinvented himself at this stage, going from that clumsy, peppy young man, to a stout, middle aged father figure. Unfortunately, completely of the blue, he developed an aortic dissection. Initially misdiagnosed as a heart attack, the condition killed him on the operating table. He was only 54.