When people like Johnny Cash die, they don’t really leave. Cash’s music will stay, his voice will never fall silent, his influence will be felt for generations.
When people like John Ritter die, they slowly disappear. Much of his career has been confined to witching-hour reruns, and Ritter may slip from our memories because we’ve already seen so much of him, but never really noticed him.
To people my age, Ritter was always just there. He was easy enough to swallow, even easier to forget once the half- hour was up.
His death is unlikely to change that.
Ritter’s final gig, ABC’s popular comedy “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” mined the same cheap-joke territory as did his television breakthrough, “Three’s Company.” And Ritter largely performed the same function on both shows – the male lead as placeholder between shots of hot blonde women.
But while “8 Simple Rules” didn’t match “Three’s Company” in historical significance, it was superior in quality. It was funnier, warmer and more sincere. Due to its family-oriented subject matter, it was destined to join “Three’s Company” on basic cable, but it fell well short of the four seasons typically needed for syndication.
After Ritter died unexpectedly on Sept. 11, much has been written about how his television career failed to demonstrate the range of his talent, as if his comfort on the small screen was something shameful.
When Ritter played against type on film he was often successful, particularly in the last decade, when the memory of Jack, Janet and Chrissy had faded. Ritter was almost unrecognizable in his two strongest dramatic performances – he was crew-cutted and lumpy as a gay grocery store manager in 1996’s “Sling Blade” and was buried under a bushy beard as a psychiatrist in 2000’s “Panic.”
Deservedly, Ritter earned a smattering of Oscar talk after “Sling Blade.” This was due in part to his understated performance, and in part to the fact that he was John Ritter – the same man who spent seven seasons cracking stupid gay jokes with Suzanne Somers on prime time.
It’s not fair to view Ritter’s more serious roles as having legitimized his career. To find success more than once in the fickle world of television – much like Ted Danson, Patrick Duffy, Tony Danza and Mark-Paul Gosselaar have done – is an admirable achievement in itself.
But because of his reliance on the artistic wasteland of the sitcom, Ritter could eventually disappear from our consciousness, much like Fred “Rerun” Berry, Dave Coulier and the cast of “The Facts of Life” – with the notable exception of George Clooney – have done.
It’s hard to say if the timing of Ritter’s death, on the two-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and on the same day as Cash’s passing, will block or enhance our memory of the actor.
Sure, Ritter will continue to pop up at odd hours on TV Land. But years from now insomniacs, addicts and college students will stare blankly at him at 3 a.m., hardly wondering what happened to that guy in the little white shorts who was pretending to be gay.
It’s unfortunate, because Ritter is worthy of a lasting legacy.
He wasn’t an entertainment icon like Cash. But when it comes to television longevity, reliability and appeal, Ritter was among the best we’ve had.
In a sense, Ritter’s half- hour ended last Thursday. He’s already begun to recede from our memory, just like the cornball television shows he spent a lifetime mastering.
Perhaps that was Ritter’s plan all along.
Daniel Pike is the Herald features editor and a senior print journalism major from Glas-gow. His column appears on Thursdays. Reach him at [email protected]