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What We've Learned About John Ritter Since He Died

When actor John Ritter died suddenly on September 11, 2003, he left behind an impressive collection of work. Three's Company, the hit TV sitcom that aired in the '70s and '80s, made the actor a household name. Still, people often forget he also had successful stints on Broadway, as well as several triumphant forays onto the silver screen.

Though it has been more than 15 years since Ritter's passing, he continues to be remembered by friends and fans as one of the kindest and hardest working actors in Hollywood. Even as the years wear on, more information about Ritter's life, death and influence continue to come to light. Some of these stories come courtesy of the family he left behind, while others have been shared by industry insiders who worked alongside him during his long acting career. Whatever the source, these tidbits of information add new layers to Ritter's ongoing legacy.

The problem with Problem Child

Released in 1990, Problem Child became an unexpected hit for Universal Pictures, earning $72 million against a reported production budget of just $10 million. Ritter was the film's most bankable star, but if the studio had gotten their way, another actor would have gotten the leading role.

The film's director, Dennis Dugan, was friendly with Ritter from their early days as young actors in Hollywood. When Dugan was given the reins to Problem Child, he knew he wanted the Three's Company actor to star as adoptive father Ben Healy. Only problem? The studio wanted "somebody more famous." Dugan pursued Ritter anyway, and upon reading the script, he was on board. Shockingly, the studio had a change of heart as well. Dugan recalled the phone call during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:  "[The producers] said to me, 'We're thinking Ritter is a good idea — do you think you could get him?' and I said, 'Maybe.'"

Lifesaving advice

From 1972-1978, Ritter had a recurring role on the television series The Waltons. During that time, the affable actor developed friendships with many of his castmates, including child star Mary Elizabeth McDonough.

During an appearance on Oprah: Where Are They Now? McDonough revealed how Ritter's advice helped save her life. "Erin, my character, was supposed to be 'the pretty one,'" the actress recalled. "So the message to me became this pressure to be perfect and to look perfect and to act perfect and to not make any mistakes, and that took its toll on me." As she became a teenager, McDonough struggled with body image issues. "The wardrobe woman looked at me and said, 'Well, do you think you could fit in the clothes from last season, or have you gained more weight?' And it hit me just like a knife in my heart," she admitted.

Ritter noticed that McDonough was struggling, so one day he approached the young star and offered some advice. "He said, 'No, no, I want you to start doing a journal.' And that night I started journaling and it saved my life," she confessed. Journaling gave McDonough an outlet to face those body image issues; these days, she's a women's activist and life coach, helping others face their own battles, much in the way Ritter once helped her.

Kids break the darndest things

John Ritter scored the only Emmy Award of his career in 1984, when he won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his work on Three's Company. Soon after bringing the award home, the star's then 4-year-old son broke his trophy.

"My dad's Emmy was on the shelf, and I remember sort of playing with it," Jason Ritter admitted in a conversation with People. "I'm not 100 percent sure if I broke it, or what, but it definitely was broken at a certain point... I definitely have guilty feelings and memories about it, so I think I did break it a little bit. Just the tip of the wing."

Jason's own acting career has garnered two Emmy nominations, though he has yet to score a win. If does end up bringing home an Emmy one day, he'll no doubt be keeping an eye on his own little one. The actor and his fiancee, actress Melanie Lynskey, welcomed their first child in December of 2018.  

A star who stayed grounded

When Jason Ritter decided to follow in his father's footsteps and pursue a career in acting, the former Three's Company star was eager to pass along some words of wisdom. At the top of his list: the importance of staying grounded, no matter how your career is going. "My dad, I think one of the most important things he taught me is that sometimes the idea of celebrity, it can feel nice but it can't ever really take the place of true friends and family and anythings like that," the younger Ritter recalled during an appearance on People Now.

Jason went on to explain that his celebrity father maintained a level head by tuning out most of the noise. "Don't believe the bad stuff they say about you and don't believe the good stuff they say about you either."

He was funny that way

Released in 2015, She's Funny That Way is a romantic comedy starring Owen Wilson, Will Forte, and Jennifer Aniston among its cast. If history had gone differently, that ensemble might have been led by John Ritter.

Writer-director Peter Bogdanovich started working on the film in the late '90s. Having previously worked with Ritter on the 1981 film They All Laughed, he wanted to reunite with his former star by casting him in the lead role. The movie stalled in production as rewrites and other commitments held up momentum, but despite that, the two men remained close. In 2003, Bogdanovich was preparing for a guest spot on Ritter's sitcom 8 Simple Rules when the former Three's Company star suffered chest pains. Ritter died hours later in surgery. Grief-stricken after losing his friend, Bogdanovich shelved She's Funny That Way, unsure if the project would ever see the light of day. A decade later, after a chance encounter with Wilson, Bogdanovich rewrote the script and moved forward with production.

A real doll

Though known for his comedy work, John Ritter occasionally dabbled in other genres — as he did in 1998, when he took a role in the slasher film Bride of Chucky, the fourth installment in the Child's Play franchise.

In the movie, Ritter played an arrogant and manipulative police chief who dies at the hands of two pint-sized dolls — Chucky and Tiffany — who shoot nails into his face before stabbing him. If that sounds gory, it could have been worse. At a Q&A honoring the film's 20th anniversary, screenwriter Don Mancini revealed there was originally one more aspect to Ritter's onscreen death.

"After the scene where the friend David gets hit by a truck and explode and the van takes off and the cop car is chasing them, what you see in the film now is that the doors open and Chucky shoots the tire of the cop car to prevent them from getting chased," Mancini said. "What was originally scripted was there's one last payoff to John Ritter."

The plan was to have the nails in Ritter's face used one more time. "They toss his body out into the highway and the cop car rolls over the nails, so it has a blowout and spins and explodes," Mancini said. "We weren't able to do that, unfortunately."

No one was to blame

Hours before he passed away, Ritter complained of chest pains and was taken to a hospital where he was treated for a heart attack. After his tragic and unexpected death, Ritter's widow, Amy Yasbeck, filed wrongful death lawsuits against two doctors involved with his treatment, claiming that radiologist Dr. Matthew Lotysch failed to spot an enlargement of the aorta in a body scan conducted two years before and that cardiologist Dr. Joseph Lee misdiagnosed the actor when he arrived at the hospital on the day he died (a torn aorta and a large aneurysm were the actual causes of death).  

A jury cleared both doctors, claiming that neither were negligent in their diagnosis and treatment of Ritter. "We felt very strongly that neither Dr. Lotysch nor Dr. Lee did anything wrong in this case," said the jury forewoman. Another lawsuit with Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, the hospital where Ritter died, was settled out of court.

Raising awareness through tragedy

After Ritter's death, Yasbeck started researching the condition that killed him, spending hours online educating herself on the disorder and connecting with others who had been affected by similar heart conditions. Her pursuits led Yasbeck to create the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, designed to spread public awareness of thoracic aortic disease. She also teamed up with Dr. Dianna Milewicz of the University of Texas Medical School to create "The Ritter Rules," which help with detection and treatment of the disease.

Yasbeck is passionate in her efforts to educate the public about this disorder because she knows it's what John would have done if he'd survived. "John was that guy," she said during a 2010 appearance on The Early Show. "He knew that with the celebrity he had, came great responsibility. And we've taken that responsibility very seriously by lending his name to 'The Ritter Rules.'"

In a strange twist of fortune, the Ritter Rules helped save the life of John's brother Tom, whose heart condition was repaired due to the knowledge of John's disease.

His face lights up Hollywood High School

Located in the heart of Tinseltown, Hollywood High School has a long list of famous alumni including Anthony Anderson, James Garner and Leighton Meester. Still, only a select few were chosen to be immortalized on the giant mural titled "Portrait of Hollywood" that covers the outside of the school's auditorium. Artist Eloy Torrez initially painted the mural in 2002, with Dorothy Dandridge, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett and Judy Garland among the many famous faces on display. 

In 2008, Ritter was added to the mural on a portion of the building's north wall. The addition was revealed during a ceremony on the school's campus, with Yasbeck and comedian Jimmy Kimmel among those in attendance. Long before becoming a TV star, Ritter was student body president during his time at Hollywood High School. After graduating, he attended the University of Southern California, where he majored in theater arts. 

Well met and long remembered

The sands of time have not stopped Ritter's former costars from singing his praises. In 2015, more than a decade after his death, Ritter's Three's Company costar Suzanne Somers dedicated her Dancing with the Stars performance to the late actor. Kaley Cuoco, who starred as Ritter's daughter in the family sitcom 8 Simple Rules before finding fame on The Big Bang Theory, continues to hold her departed TV dad in high regard. "Still not a day goes by where he doesn't make me laugh one way or another," Cuoco said in an Instagram post honoring the anniversary of Ritter's passing. Then there's Zach Braff, who shared the screen with Ritter on Scrubs. During an AMA with fans, the Garden State actor waxed poetic about working with Ritter. "He was/is a hero of mine," said Braff. "When I was a kid, Three's Company was my introduction into physical comedy. He was a master."