Two Augusts ago, during a savagely hot week down the Jersey shore with my wife and four kids, Nick at Nite ran a Three’s Company marathon. I discovered this only because, in conducting routine bedtime surveillance on my four children, I found my eldest, who was then just seven, still awake in the upstairs bedroom. The three other kids were sprawled out, sound asleep, but he was watching Three’s Company and smiling from ear to ear. It was 10:35 and he refused to surrender the remote. I sat and watched the show with him for a while, ignoring the antics onscreen to focus on my son’s reaction. What would a seven-year-old possibly absorb from a dated sitcom devoted to sophomoric sexual innuendo and girls in hot pants bending over to look in their pocketbooks?
I hadn’t thought about Three’s Company in years. The show debuted in 1977, when I was 17 and a junior in high school, a fact that startled me in John Ritter’s obituary. I attribute the show to an earlier, awkward, pre-sexual phase of my life, rather than the fumbling, awkward, beginning of it. The other peculiar fact was that I left for college in 1978 and surely never watched the show again, and yet I clearly remember — wrongly — following the show for years and years, like Gilligan’s Island and The Bionic Man.
The fragments of episodes I watched with my son that week brought back a flood of memories. First, I was never that enthralled by Suzanne Somers’s dopey Chrissy character — she was too dippy and two-dimensional. Joyce DeWitt’s Janet did nothing for me. The appeal of the show was John Ritter’s character, Jack Tripper.
Tripper’s character approached women with the same determination Lucille Ball’s Lucy devoted to money-making schemes that would legitimize her in the eyes of Ricky Ricardo. But Ritter imbued Tripper with an inner decency that acted like noise-cancellation filter for the more abrasive and tasteless aspects of the show. He found a way to make Tripper’s overactive hormones both natural and relatively harmless. Of course, to a 17-year-old, Tripper’s life seemed normal. I probably thought that’s how I was going to spend the rest of my life, chasing women day and night and then inauspiciously falling over chairs once they were miraculously foolish enough to enter my living room.
Ritter’s Tripper was one of those scheming characters who could never quite pull if off, a Wiley E. Coyote in a leisure suit, but you rooted for him because of the quiet dignity with which he took his medicine. Even if he ogled Chrissy and Janet the first season, creating an uncomfortable sexual tension that was soon abandoned, he soon turned his eyes on all the women around them, often in the company is his oily wing man, Larry, played by Richard Kline. In my memory, Larry scored only fairly better, probably because he didn’t have two female roommates, a nosy landlord, and an ongoing gay-roommate charade to maintain. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through for any guy, no matter how smooth.
A typical show would have Tripper on the living-room couch, putting the moves on a woman — often more experienced and sexually aggressive — only to have the central Flintstones-style plot misunderstanding/false assumption boil over in a riot of slammed doors, tossed clothing, angry words, and pratfalls over the couch, often with bowls of cereal or mugs of coffee flying through the air.
Ritter was a gifted physical comedian, whose double-takes, tied-together shoelaces, mouthfuls of sour food, bumps on the head, and tumbles through a closet full of women’s clothes were overlooked by critics because of the show’s well-deserved reputation as a trendsetter of jiggle TV. But Ritter was as easy and fluid as Dick Can Dyke — he just didn’t have the scripts.
Tripper was never a wolf, though — he may have feinted at, but never seemed to snare, a woman who was truly innocent. He and the girls formed an ad-hoc family that was easily recognizable, even to suburban teenagers like me. But the character’s likeability was enhanced by Ritter’s dedication to it — he never looked down at it or winked at the camera, or treated Ritter as somehow beneath his dignity. His belief in Jack Tripper’s decency gave the character a roundedness that was absent from the script.
In my memory, Tripper was a great failure with women, and yet in reruns I saw that he was, in fact, quite successful, even if the coitus was keep neatly off-screen. And yet Ritter appealed to me because of the air of ineptitude he wore — an air that would serve as the tanks of oxygen I breathed until well into my college years.
BEYOND THE REGAL BEAGLE
My memories of John Ritter fade for years after that, save for vague pop-ups in shows like Hooperman, which I didn’t watch, and the two Problem Child movies. But Ritter worked constantly, and if he wasn’t an A-list actor, he didn’t seem to mind. He made tedious comedy films and run-of-the-mill TV movies and even took small parts in forgettable films, but, clearly, he was one of those actors who lived for the sheer joy of working and considered acting both a job and a craft that required unyielding dedication. Like John Travolta, Ritter was famous for a sitcom and then vanished for 20 years, even though he was still there, working feverishly, enjoying the life, and not complaining. Most actors view the work of acting as the drudgery they must tolerate en route to their true calling of stardom, but Ritter, like Travolta, just loved to work.
As the years passed, Ritter used the Tripper archetype as the layer of a Halloween costume that he could peel off and thrown on to confuse viewer’s expectations. In the 1990s, as a guest actor, he played himself in The Larry Sanders Show and a shrink in News Radio. He played serious roles that went completely against type. He played a robot Dad in a memorable episode of Buffy that skillfully exploited the fears of teenage girls whose mothers remarry.
When I saw Ritter in my favorite series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in 1999, he played Dr. Richard Manning, a shrink whose wife is found brutally attacked and whose baby as been ripped from her stomach. The formula for the show always includes a deep look at a crime, and Ritter was brilliant at creating a sense of possibility. Was he really the warm, loving husband and another unwitting victim? Or was he a sick, dark psychopath? He turns out to be a combination of the two — Ritter attacked his wife, jealous over her affair with another man but mistakenly killing the baby he assumed to belong to another. He killed his own child. It was a far cry from Three’s Company, but Ritter made it just as believable.
And yet Ritter could also play it straight. In Holy Joe, a two-hour made-for-TV movie (which my wife forced me to watch, at gunpoint) Ritter was a small-town priest who was also a volunteer fireman. Trapped in a terrible fire while trying to carry a child to safety, Ritter’s character is rescued by another fireman. The child thinks the fireman is Jesus, but Ritter’s character thinks the fireman is just a hero who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, and the town, the congregants, and Ritter’s family are all slowly transformed by the fallout and debate over this possible miracle.
It’s was lovely performance from Ritter, who underplayed the religious for the sake of the ties that bind together family and community. He also played against type in the independent film Tadpole, playing a self-centered Dad who doesn’t understand the psychological or sexual tension coursing all around him. It’s another example of Ritter fully inhabiting a role, and refusing to make the character more viewer-friendly.
Of course, the theme of family and community allowed Ritter to triumphantly reemerge as the star of ABC’s Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.The fact that he had to guard the virtue of his daughters was a cultural joke that adults instantly understood, even if the teenagers did not. (In TV, it’s usually the other away around.)
Many viewers probably thought this was an ironic and lucky break for Ritter. But his accomplishment is much greater and unrecognized. The vast majority of TV stars — especially in sitcoms — quickly fade into obscurity, unable to throw off that Halloween costume. Jason Alexander of Seinfeld has appeared on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to break the black-magic spell of George Costanza, but, even as a classically trained Broadway actor, he’s still struggling. Ted Danson of Cheers, all of the cast of MASH (save for Alan Alda), Florence Henderson — pick a sitcom and find an actor who has worked as quietly, steadily and uncomplainingly as Ritter. Rob Reiner went into directing instead of face that fire. John Travolta is the best possible comparison. The fact that Ritter did not make the leap to movie superstar does not detract from the elegance and rarity of his accomplishment.
When I think about why in the world my then-seven-year-old son would watch episode after episode of Three’s Company, it seems clear that he enjoyed seeing the bumbling Tripper character, the soul of the TV show’s extended makeshift family, trip and fall down and get pies in the face. Ritter was really the father figure — he was warm and caring, and, despite his character’s flaws, his love provided the emotional reliability on which the other characters depended. You could slam a door in his face, and it was O.K. to laugh. You can fool critics and audiences, but you can’t fool a seven-year-old.
— Bruce Stockler is a media-relations consultant and humorist. His memoir, I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets, was recently published by St. Martin’s Press.