John Ritter, 1948-2003
Remembering a guy I really, really liked.
12:00 AM, Sep 22, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
I MET JOHN RITTER for the first time two-and-a-half years ago when he and Henry Winkler were ending their hit run on Broadway in "The Dinner Party." The rest of the cast, the great Len Cariou, Penny Fuller, Jan Maxwell, and Veanne Cox were staying with it, and Neil Simon offered Jon Lovitz and me the chance to step in for Henry and John, which, as you may imagine, took almost three tenths of a second to accept.
Lovitz and I went to see it as soon as we got to New York and went up to the dressing rooms afterwards to introduce ourselves. I was taking over John's part, so I went to his room first. The door was open, and I stuck my head in. He was unlacing his shoes, and when he looked up his face shined like the sun, and he shouted, "Hey, Larry, come on in! Great to meet you!" Before I could move, he stood up and came over and pumped my hand with a big smile. Then, suddenly, his face dropped, his eyes grew wide, and he whispered with fear, "You . . . You want me out of the room?" And I laughed, and he laughed, and we were off to the races, and I remember thinking, "I really, really like this guy."
And I really did, I liked him an awful lot, but I wasn't alone. Everyone liked John Ritter, everyone who ever met him, from toll collectors to studio heads. Everyone. I know it's a cliché, when someone passes away, to insist that everybody liked the guy. I mean, even when Idi Amin was buried somebody probably got up and said, "There's a lot of love in this room tonight."
But it's true in John's case; everybody liked him. In fact, I don't think it's going too far to say that everyone who knew John Ritter loved him.
ABOUT A YEAR after the play John was asked to be the star of a television show called "Eight Simple Rules . . . for Dating My Teenage Daughter," and the writers and the cast were great, but there is no question whatsoever that the reason the show was a hit was because the country loved John in it. He and the producers asked me to do a scene in the pilot, and that led to my being in the first season a few times. I had the best time whenever I walked onto that set, Stage 6 at Disney. My scenes were always with John, one-on-one, and he was the funniest, most generous actor I've ever met. Coincidentally, I was onstage rehearsing another one last week, the last one, the one that will never air, because that was the one where, on Thursday afternoon, the 11th, the star of the show suddenly got sick and, such a short time later, in the same hospital he was born, died.
It's a tragedy when anyone dies before his time, by accident, or misadventure, or, as with John, an invisible, congenital thing that just waited quietly and went off. His wife, Amy, was with him as was my friend, Flody, and Flody said one second they were wheeling him along, and John was joking around to make Amy feel better, and she laughed, and then, quietly, in an instant, like an edit, he was gone.
My father passed on seven years ago, and it was so sudden I always said he was sitting next to God before his knee even hit the floor. I think it was that way with John, too.
SOMETHING KIND OF WEIRD happened the day before he got sick and died, but good weird. We were on the set rehearsing one of the scenes. Coincidentally, his best friends, Henry Winkler and Peter Bogdanovich, were on the show--John was so happy about that, too--and they had just walked by, and Peter said something funny, and we all laughed. John and I were strolling down a narrow hall to where the scene was going to begin, and I turned to look at him, and he was smiling at me.
Now, I'm not a big hugger. I am with my wife and kids (a lot more than they probably want, in fact), but I'm not a big casual hugger. I think it's cheesy when men go around hugging women, and I'm just not a big guy-hugger, either. I like giving firm, sincere handshakes accompanied by a straight look in the eye, and that's that.
But at that second, when I saw John smiling at me, I still don't know why, but I just stopped walking and gave him a big hug. He hugged me back, and when I let him go he chuckled and said, "What's that for?" And I said, "I don't know. I just felt like hugging you." And he smiled again, and I hugged him again, a big one. Then we just strolled the rest of the way silently, no joking, no giggling, a quiet, easy moment.
And now he's gone, and his family is in mourning, and I'm writing this. Both my parents are gone, and God knows I love them completely and forever, but that's different, somehow. I miss John very, very much. Maybe that's why I hugged him.
There's an old Jewish saying, that every man's heaven or hell is determined by what people say about him after he dies. I think that's a good way to put it, and in John's case, it means he's sitting on the highest cloud there is.