Published on June 19, 2016
Jonathan Southworth “John” Ritter (September 17, 1948 – September 11, 2003) was an American actor, best known for his role of Jack Tripper in the ABC sitcom Three’s Company, for which he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award in 1984; also playing the same role in Three’s a Crowd, he was the son of the late singing cowboy star Tex Ritter and the father of actors Jason Ritter and Tyler Ritter.
Ritter appeared in hundreds of films and television shows/episodes combined (and performed on Broadway), including It (1990), Problem Child (1990), Problem Child 2 (1991) and Bad Santa in 2003 (his final live action film which was dedicated to his memory). Prior to Clifford’s Really Big Movie (posthumously released), Ritter received four Daytime Emmy Award nominations for his voice work on the children’s television series, Clifford the Big Red Dog, in addition to many other awards Ritter was nominated for or won. Don Knotts called Ritter the “greatest physical comedian on the planet”
Ritter died from an aortic dissection on September 11, 2003. His death occurred shortly after the production of an episode for the second season of 8 Simple Rules.
Ritter was born on September 17, 1948 at the Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California. Ritter had a birth defect known as a coloboma in his right eye. His father, Tex Ritter, was a singing cowboy/matinee-star, and his mother, Dorothy Fay (née Southworth), was an actress. He has an older brother, Thomas Matthews “Tom” (b. January 8, 1947). Ritter attended Hollywood High School, where he was student body president. He went on to the University of Southern California and majored in psychology with plans to have a career in politics. He later changed his major to theater arts and attended the USC School of Dramatic Arts (formerly School of Theatre) after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. While still in college, Ritter traveled to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and West Germany to perform in plays. Ritter graduated in 1971
Film and Television
Ritter headlined several stage performances. After his graduation from USC in 1970, his first TV acting experience was a campus revolutionary in the TV series, Dan August, starring Burt Reynolds and future Three’s Company co-star Norman Fell. Ritter made his film debut in the 1971 Disney film The Barefoot Executive. He made guest appearances on the television series Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, and many others. He had a recurring role as the Reverend Matthew Fordwick on the drama series The Waltons from October 1972 to December 1976. Since he was not a weekly cast member, he had time to pursue other roles, which he did until December 1976, when he left for a starring role in the hit ABC sitcom Three’s Company (the Americanized version of the 1970s British Thames Television series Man About the House) in 1977. In 1978, Ritter played Ringo Starr’s manager on the television special Ringo. In 1982, provided the voice of Peter Dickinson in Flight of Dragons.
Ritter became a household name playing struggling culinary student Jack Tripper with two female roommates. Ritter co-starred opposite Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers; however, Somers left due to a contractual dispute in 1981. Jenilee Harrison and then Priscilla Barnes filled Somers’s role. Much of the comedy centered around Jack’s pretending to be gay to keep the old-fashioned landlords appeased over the seemingly sordid living arrangements. The show spent several seasons near the top of the TV ratings in the U.S. before ending in 1984. A year long spin-off Three’s a Crowd ensued, as the Jack Tripper character has a live-in girlfriend and runs his own bistro. The original series has been seen continuously in reruns and is also available on DVD. During the run of Three’s Company, Ritter also appeared in the films Hero at Large, Americathon, and They All Laughed.
Hooperman was Ritter’s first acting role after Three’s Company. Detective Harry Hooperman inherits a run-down apartment building and hires Susan Smith (Debrah Farentino) to run it. A relationship follows and Hooperman must juggle work, love, and the antics of Bijoux the dog. In 1988, John was nominated for both an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his work on Hooperman. Ritter won a People’s Choice Award for this role. In 1992–95, Ritter returned to TV for three seasons as John Hartman, aide to a US Senator in Hearts Afire. This series starred Markie Post as Georgie Anne Lahti and Billy Bob Thornton as Billy Bob Davis. Ritter played the role of “Dad” in the music video for Graham Nash’s song “Innocent Eyes” from the 1996album of the same name.
After his time on television, Ritter appeared in a number of movies, most notably Problem Child and its first sequel. He rejoined with Billy Bob Thornton in the Oscar-winning Sling Blade (playing a kindhearted, gay, discount store manager) and Noises Off, and played the lead role in Blake Edwards’ 1989 film Skin Deep. Ritter starred in many made-for-TV movies, including Gramps (1995), co-starring with Andy Griffith, Rob Hedden’s The Colony (1995) with Hal Linden, Stephen King’s It, Danielle Steel’s Heartbeat with Polly Draper, and It Came From the Sky in 1999 with Yasmine Bleeth.
Ritter also made guest appearances on TV shows, such as Felicity, Ally McBeal, Scrubs, Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as an episode of Law & Order: SVU (2002) where the case involves the beating of a seven-months-pregnant woman, whose unborn child has been forcibly removed from her body via a primitive cesarean section. Among the witnesses questioned, Ritter plays the victim’s husband, a psychiatrist with several damaging secrets who knows more about his wife’s beating than he’s willing to admit. John also provided the voice of the title character in the PBS animated children’s show Clifford the Big Red Dog, a role for which he received four Emmy nominations. He starred alongside kickboxing actor Olivier Gruner for the buddy cop film Mercenary.