The Gospel According to John
Friendly fall guy JOHN RITTER offers rare insight into his toughest role — himself
By Lisa Bernhard
January 8, 1994
Think of the last time you saw John Ritter on a talk show. (Bet you can't.) Besides claiming to be “a very private person” who finds public attention “embarrassing,” Ritter has an important reason for his self-imposed gag rule: fear. “There is a lie that's inherent in talk shows,” he explains. “That is, 'Be yourself, but you better be entertaining.' There's so much pressure, I can't do it. You can't just go on and say, 'Hello, Merv!'”
But the truth is, Ritter is an interview waiting to happen. Feeling “more comfortable one-on-one,” and knowing that publicity equals viewers, Ritter, who stars in the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire and will host The United Cerebral Palsy 94 Star-a-thon January 22 and 23, has agreed to talk. And talk. And talk. What is strange is that, for someone who has done so little press, Ritter has the desire to say so much.
Through his vivacious, kind and genuinely funny persona, Ritter inspects the very things that have kept him quiet: insecurity and the desire to prove himself. Before mentioning Hearts Afire, or his former series Three's Company and Hooperman, or his feature films, he talks about a play he did in Los Angeles years ago with respected playwright Terrence McNally. “Terrence told me that the director said I was the hardest-working actor he had ever worked with. And I didn't know, because I always felt, 'I won't be able to cut this, and I'm working with these New York theater people and they're looking at me like, 'John's a nice guy, but uh-uh.'”
Life has always “seemed a bit theatrical” for Ritter, who was born 45 years ago under the long, tall shadow of his country-music-legend father, Tex, and mother Dorothy Fay. “There was something about my father,” says Ritter, “about the spirit of the West. He was a Civil War scholar — a very smart man. My mother was the glamorous one. She was the showstopper. She was like a cross between Auntie Mame and Glinda the Good Witch. My only brother is handicapped with cerebral palsy and went to a special school.
“I remember the first time I got a sense of my father's fame,” he continues. “It was when I got to stay up late to watch him sing the theme song from High Noon on the Academy Awards. And it won Best Song.”
Despite his father's protestations, young Ritter pursued a show-biz career of his own and got his first taste of fame with a role as a minister on The Waltons. Then, of course, came a sever-year run as affable Jack Tripper on Three's Company, which indelibly inked Ritter on the public consciousness and sent the show jiggling into years of syndication. He continued the role for a year on the follow-up sitcom Three's a Crowd. “My father was happy I was on The Waltons,” says Ritter. “He liked that show. That was his speed. He would have hated Three's Company. He wouldn't have laughed at it.”
Ritter often found difficulty doing the same. “I loved the show back then,” he says, “but I was embarrassed to say so, because a lot of my actor friends were like, 'What are you doing in that piece of s---!' Slowly but surely, I met people who liked it. Lucy [Lucille Ball] endorsed it publicly and was so complimentary about me. And then Jon Voight, who is my idol of the dramatic actors, said that he and his daughter would watch it and laugh together. He said, 'Don't put yourself down, man. It's hard to do what you do. The actors who put you down, let them be in a farce and see what they do.' I was delirious hearing it, because I used to go, 'Hi, I'm John Ritter, Three's Company — I'm sorry.'”
Today Ritter and Tripper have made their peace: “There are about ten shows that would like to blow up and burn, but I'm really proud of about ten, and I'm fine with the rest, here and there.”
Except for a few lethargic days in which he becomes “John the human tree sloth,” Ritter still seeks to test his ability. His present challenge is Hearts Afire, costarring Markie Post and produced by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Though the sexy sitcom took some heat from critics for its ribald primetime passion, last season's debut looked promising. This season, however, much has changed: the setting (from Washington, D.C. to a fictional small town), Ritter and Post's relationship (from single lovers to married couple) and their characters' occupations (from working in a senator's office to owning a newspaper). What has also changed are the ratings (from solid to slipping) — which reminds one of the adage “If it ain't broke...”
Though word spread that the Thomasons' Clinton connection may have caused the locale shift, Ritter offers a different story. “Linda loves the show and wants to save it. For some reason, Linda was convinced by CBS that the strength of the show was not Washington but the relationship that Markie and I have. I don't quite understand it. I want it to be the same. Quite frankly, I didn't sign to do this show, where I'm now married, living in a small town, with a mother of two. I signed to be a legislative assistant to a conservative senator in love with this wild, firebrand liberal. Now I'm married? How did this happen?
While Hearts Afire struggles to find its audience, Ritter continues to pursue other endeavors. He helped produce the sitcom Anything But Love, provided a voice for last season's short-lived animated series Fish Police, and recently starred in the TV drama The Only Way Out opposite Henry Winkler. He will also be seen in a cameo role in Rob Reiner's upcoming feature, North. On the personal side, Ritter was tabloid fodder two years ago when he broke up with his wife of 15 years, Nancy, with whom he has three children (Jason, 13; Carly, 11; and Tyler, 8). His love interest these days is actress Amy Yasbeck, 30, his costar in the Problem Child movies.
When asked what roles he'd still like to play, Ritter cracks “Conrad Birdie,” before settling into serious thought. “ I love Saturday Night Live, but I'm really nervous about being on it. I've been asked several times but it's almost like, I don't want to see what goes on backstage. And I don't want to put myself in the position of having them be like, 'That guy sucks!' But I would love to do a show like that, and like In Living Color. I'd like to be a young Jim Carrey.
“I'm pretty much a very happy actor,” he reflects. “I have my problems in my personal life, but in terms of my career, I have been so fortunate. I know there are hits and misses. I know that I won an Emmy and a Golden Globe and a couple of People's Choice Awards. I may never win anything again, and that would be fine. To be obsessed with box-office ratings and all that stuff, I've been around for so long that I know if you do that, you just whip yourself into a frenzy. I've done some movies and TV shows that I think are really great, and no one has seen them. And I've done some shows like Danielle Steel's Heartbeat, which was Number Ten for the week, and I thought I was just this side of Perry Como's sleeping stand-in in terms of energy.
“But it's interesting to me to see how I do, to test myself. Sometimes I don't think anybody's watching, except maybe three people, so I do it for two people, or one person.” Playing nobody but John Ritter, he adds, “Anyway, that's me in a nutshell. Is that okay?”