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John Ritter, the actor who has died aged 54, was one of the best-known faces on American television and the star of the 1970s situation comedy, Three's Company, based on the British series Man About The House.
Ritter first found television fame as the Reverend Matthew Fordwick in The Waltons, the long-running television series set in rural Virginia during the Depression. But it was in his role as the affably bumbling Jack Tripper in the domestic farce Three's Company that he became a household name across America.
The series, which ran from 1977 to 1984, followed the innuendo-filled misadventures of Tripper and his two female flat-mates - a down-to-earth brunette named Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt) and a clueless blonde called Christmas "Chrissy" Snow (Suzanne Somers). Although the relationship between Tripper and the girls was platonic, every storyline was steeped in titillating possibilities. The script relied heavily on double entendre. Much was also made of the somewhat laborious joke that Ritter's character had appeased his landlord (suspicious of the "threesome") by pretending to be homosexual.
Ritter would later describe his years on the show as "an education". "When the curtain went up," he explained, "no matter how long you've studied or haven't studied at all, you had to answer to the audience. We didn't do retakes. If there was a boom [microphone] in the shot, so be it."
Despite critical sneers, audiences loved Three's Company, and the disapproval of such bodies as Women's Lib, the Parent-Teacher Association of America and the Reverend Donald Wildmon's National Federation for Decency served only to seal its popularity.
Jonathan Southworth Ritter was born on September 17 1948 at Burbank, California. The younger son of the cowboy actor and musician Tex Ritter and his actress wife, Dorothy Fay Ritter, John was educated at Hollywood High School and later attended the University of Southern California, where he read Psychology. But after joining an acting class he switched to Theatre Arts, graduating with a degree in Drama in 1971. He later studied with Stella Adler at the Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop.
Ritter's first film role was a bit part in Disney's The Barefoot Executive (1971), which he followed with a number of minor parts before landing Three's Company. The sitcom thrived on Ritter's comic timing and talent for physical comedy, although a spin-off, Three's a Crowd, in 1985, lasted only one season. In 1988, however, he had another television hit playing the crime-busting San Francisco cop Hooperman.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Ritter's comic talents were displayed (with mixed results) in a variety of film comedies including Real Men (1987); Skin Deep (1988); Stay Tuned (1992); and two Problem Child films (1990 and 1991) which made much use of the pee-in-lemonade, vomit-on-a-roundabout and treading-in-dogs'-mess variety of humour.
In 1996, however, Ritter broke away from comic typecasting to take the role of a homosexual shopkeeper in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade and in Henry Bromell's Panic (2000) he played a psychiatrist treating a hitman. He recently appeared alongside Sigourney Weaver in the low-budget comic drama Tadpole, which won critical acclaim at the 2002 Sundance Festival.
Ritter was awarded an Emmy in 1984 for Three's Company. He received two Emmy nominations for his role as the voice of Clifford the Big Red Dog in the animated series.
In all Ritter appeared in some 25 television films and numerous feature films; but he also had a distinguished stage career and acted in more than 50 plays across America. He recently spent nine months in the Broadway run of Neil Simon's Dinner Party, playing opposite fellow television star Henry Winkler (formerly "The Fonz" in Happy Days). He also made recent guest appearances in the comedy drama television series Ally McBeal. The film Manhood, in which he appears along with Billy Bob Thornton, will be released in November.
The good-humoured Ritter was a welcome figure on every film set he worked on, although he shunned Hollywood parties. "I don't like being a celebrity," he once revealed, adding that on occasion he would disguise himself when out in public. "I wear wigs, glasses and even a stick-on beard." He preferred family life, saying that "no glitzy showbiz reception can compete with that".
Ritter died on Thursday after a heart attack on the set of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter in which he played a harassed father attempting to cope with his teenage children.
In August 2001, John Ritter had the doleful task of contacting the obituaries desk of The Daily Telegraph after we mistakenly published an obituary of his mother, who had not died. He courteously pointed out the mistake and graciously accepted an apology in the form of an article by the Obituaries Editor. Dorothy Fay Ritter survives him.
Ritter's first marriage to Nancy Morgan was dissolved in 1996. He is survived by his second wife, the actress Amy Yasbeck, and their daughter, as well as two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.