Television lost one of its great comedic talents today. Actor John Ritter died unexpectedly at age 54 of a heart defect. Ritter's contributions to mainstream television are immeasureable. As the star of one of the medium's most influental programs, John helped define the direction that television would take, has taken, and will take.
But in addition to playing the title role in the bittersweet 1987-89 detective series Hooperman, John also appeared in a little-known 1970s sitcom called Three's Company. This show, followed by a small yet loyal cult of viewers, aired weeknights for a number of years at 6:30 and 7:00 on the Los Angeles affiliate KTLA 5.
In all seriousness, I realize that John Ritter has done a bunch of different things, but let's face it. His contribution to the entertainment world pretty much begins and ends with Three's Company. I don't say that to downplay his significance. Indeed, Three's Company was an important show, for a number of reasons. It premiered toward the tail end of the 1970s, a decade in which shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show pretty much shattered the reigning genre of American Sitcoms. Both shows unabashedly tackled controversial social issues and portrayed what at the time were considered "alternative lifestyles" (such as a single woman living alone, or interracial couples) in a positive light.
In addition to breaking down the antiseptic, White-bread nature of the 50s and 60s sitcoms, however, the early 70s also saw an abandonment of the sight gags and physical comedy that were so important in shows like I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke. The humor in the news shows was mainly verbal: people sitting around and arguing or lobbing insults at each other. It worked well, but American audiences were left wanting a little more slapstick from thei socially aware, intellectual sitcoms.
Enter John Ritter. Playing the obviously named "Jack Tripper," John secured the role of slapstick physical comedy in the new sitcom era. Whether he was falling over a couch, getting hit by a door, accidentally grabbing a hot iron, or climbing a trellis with predictable yet hilarious results, John was executing well-crafted and highly effective comedy without uttering a single word. And yet what's remarkable at Three's Company is that it managed to maintain the social awareness of earlier sitcoms while maintaining slapstick as its comedic core. It's taken for granted that the characters are openly dating and having casual sex without any intention of settling down and getting married (indeed, it took one of the characters getting married to end the show's seven-year run). In fact, once the Ropers were gone they didn't even bother supplying a foil to this swinging lifestyle. The Ropers' replacement, Mr. Furley, was an aging bachelor whose own feeble attempts at getting laid were a fertile source of comedy for the show.
More significantly, the show presented a moral regime in which open homosexuality was more respectable than single men and women living together. While the latent homophobia of the downstairs neighbors provided a lot of social commentary, the fact that the landlords were willing to tolerate homosexuality (not to mention casual sex with strangers) but not sex between roommates was a statement in itself.
So, it's safe to emphasize Three's Company without running the risk of downlplay John Ritter's talents. While much of his post-Three's Company work in the 80s and 90s (Problem Child and Stay Tuned come to mind) were less than remarkable, his performance in Slingblade did a few things to revitalize in his career. His new sitcom, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, was taping its second season when John Ritter collapsed on the set.
In closing, in addition to being too young to die by any standards, John Ritter was arguably standing on the verge of a second run at enterainment notability. Nothing could ever top the influence of Three's Company, but John definitely had a decent amount of gags left in him. He will certainly be missed.