'Company' man dies unexpectedly at 54

This article was updated Sept. 14, 2003 at 12:25 p.m.

John Ritter, a prolific actor who first hit it big on ABC sitcom “Three’s Company” and went on to roles in a number of TV shows, films and plays, died unexpectedly Thursday of a heart condition in Burbank. He was 54.

The actor fell ill Thursday while working on the set of his ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” He died at 10 p.m. at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center of a dissection of the aorta, an undetectable heart flaw.

His publicist said Ritter was in “great health” before he began to feel sick while on set Thursday.

Ritter was best known for his starring role in the long-running “Three’s Company” as the endearing but wacky Jack Tripper, a role that forged his image in the public despite many more subtle and dramatic performances over the years.

After starring in several failed sitcoms and playing supporting roles in many films, Ritter hit it big again last year with “8 Simple Rules,” in which he plays a befuddled father struggling to cope with his quickly maturing daughters.

Show was set to make its second season debut in two weeks.

Suzanne Somers, his co-star on “Three’s Company,” described Ritter to “Entertainment Tonight” as “an uncomplicated guy, a good guy and a great, great comedic actor,” adding, “It was delicious working with him. I have a heartache.”

Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, said in a statement: “We are all of us at ABC stunned and profoundly saddened by the sudden death of John Ritter yesterday. I can truly say that his loss will be felt very personally across the industry, as John had the wonderful ability to make everyone he worked with feel like not just a colleague, but also a friend.”

Flody Suarez and Tracy Gamble, exec producers of “8 Simple Rules,” issued a joint statement calling Ritter “a force of nature.”

“He’d sweep onto a set and it would instantly turn into a laugh-filled room,” the statement read. “He had no shame when it came to making us laugh.”

Ritter seemed destined for acting from his birth in 1948 to Western film star and country musician Tex Ritter and actress Dorothy Fay. After studying drama at USC, he landed his first steady role as a minister on “The Waltons.”

That was soon followed by “Three’s Company,” which ran from 1977-84.

Ritter won an Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance on the show in the last year of its run.

“I was the class clown, but also the student body president,” he told the AP in 1992, describing the contradictions of his personality. “I idolized Bobby Kennedy, he was my role model. But so was Jerry Lewis.”

Ritter continued to work steadily after “Company” ended, including TV series such as “Hooperman” and the animated “Fish Police,” both of which lasted just one season. Political comedy “Hearts Afire,” on which he starred with Markie Post, did slightly better, running from 1992-95.

Reflecting his high volume of output over the years, Ritter expressed a casual attitude toward selection of his roles.

“Usually they say, ‘Why did you choose that role?,’ ” he commented in an interview last year, “and usually my answer is, ‘Because they asked me.’ “

His film roles in the ’80s and early ’90s were often forgettable, including the much put-upon father in 1990’s “Problem Child” and its 1991 sequel.

In 1996, however, Ritter wowed critics with a supporting role as a gay store owner in “Sling Blade.” He went on to take other supporting roles in independent films, including last year’s “Tadpole” and 2003 Sundance entrant “Manhood.” He also has a prominent role in the Miramax comedy “Bad Santa,” skedded for release in November.

Gary Winick, who directed Ritter in “Tadpole,” remembered him as “full of warmth” and capable of switching from personal jokester into character instantly.

“He’d always be improvising or even making fun of his ‘Three’s Company’ days, but as soon as I turned the camera on, he’d just nail it every time,” he said. Touchstone Television prexy Steven McPherson remember Ritter for his “unparalleled human spirit.”

“While he had the uncommon gift of making everyone he came in contact with feel special, he was the truly special one,” he said.

Ritter also found a home onstage, starring in over 50 plays and making his Broadway debut in 2000 in Neil Simon comedy “The Dinner Party.”

But Ritter was always best known for television, and after the cancellation of “Hearts Afire,” he turned in a number of popular guest-starring roles on shows including “Ally McBeal,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Felicity.”

He was also the voice of Clifford on the PBS Kids animated show “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which netted him three Daytime Emmy noms.

In addition, Ritter starred in dozens of TV movies over the years, many of which showed his dramatic chops. Those included Andy Griffith co-starrer “Gramps,” L. Frank Baum biopic “The Dreamer of Oz” and “Unnatural Causes,” a controversial telepic about the effects of Agent Orange, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Ritter described his time on “Three’s Company” as “an education” in acting on tight deadlines.

“When the curtain went up, no matter how long you’ve studied or haven’t studied, you had to answer the audience,” he recalled. “We didn’t do retakes. If there was a boom in the shot, so be it.”

Ritter is survived by his second wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, and four children.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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