Ritter's Romp on 'Three's Company' Changed TV

John Ritter tripped and stumbled his way into TV history, and comics and colleagues remember him as a master of slapstick who won the hearts of millions on Three's Company.

"It was not the most sophisticated, the brightest material you're ever going to find. Which only goes to show you how good he was," says Jason Alexander, who played George on Seinfeld.

"If you're taking material that's a little thin and elevating it, you're walking with the gods at that point. And John would do that and it looked effortless."

Ritter died Thursday of a heart problem, as friends recalled his self-effacing style that turned Three's Company into one of the biggest hit shows in an 8-year run, beginning in 1977, when the risqué comedy pushed TV to its limit.

Another Week, Another Silly Misunderstanding

It's hard to appreciate, but the very thought of members of the opposite sex living together was actually quite scandalous, at least on TV when Three's Company hit primetime.

Two years earlier, ABC, CBS, and NBC — better known in those days as "all three networks" — balked at the very notion of a risqué sitcom based on two single women living with a man, even though that premise worked on the British sitcom Man About the House.

When ABC finally took the plunge, shocked conservatives railed against the network, and still, Three's Company prevailed, and at the height of its fame, kept 38 million people laughing every week. There were board games, bubblegum cards, constant media attention, and for John Ritter, a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

The tales of Jack, Janet and Chrissy now live on in syndication, even though the show never took itself all that seriously.

Ritter became world famous as Jack Tripper, a bumbling would-be playboy who talks two beautiful women (Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers) into letting him rent the extra room in their apartment.

Jack's a cooking student, and when the girls taste his food, they're eager to have him in their home, provided there's no hanky-panky.

But to stay in the apartment, Jack needs the approval of their landlord, an old prude named Mr. Roper, and he wouldn't even consider the possibility of unmarried platonic cohabitation.

But then Janet cooks up the perfect explanation — she tells the landlord Jack's gay! One problem's solved. But what about Jack's reputation at the Regal Beagle, where he's known as quite the lady's man. Can he lead a double life?

Vintage ‘Chrissy Stuff’

In the age of Sex and the City, it's hard to appreciate that Three's Company pushed the envelope, when it was nothing more than a mild sex farce with ridiculously silly plots.

In one episode, Chrissy went to work at a convention as a hostess with an old friend of hers, not realizing the job is being a high-priced call girl.

Another time, Jack was dating a sex therapist whom Janet's father befriends and Janet thinks that the woman is a prostitute.

Then there was that time Mr. Roper was eavesdropping and started to think Chrissy was pregnant, as she revealed that she was contemplating a very serious and embarrassing medical procedure. He thinks she's about to have an abortion and tries desperately to talk her out of it. Actually, she was having a wart removed.

Through it all, Ritter's comic tallent shined through.

"He has a way of throwing your body around in a way that makes you better," says Somers. "And the way he was throwing my body around allowed me to do vintage Chrissy stuff. It was magic, magic."

Somers became an instant hit as dumb blonde Chrissy, and her pinup poster was requisite on the wall of every adolescent boy. But in 1980, when the show was sold into syndication, Somers wanted 10 percent of the take.

Thus began a feud, with Somers pitted against Ritter and Dewitt, that would last for years. Eventually, producers wrote her out of the show.

"We connected on such a close level when we were working together the way a sister and a brother would. And when we became estranged we were both so hurt because we couldn't believe that one another had turned on one another," says Somers.

"I loved John Ritter. John Ritter, when I was doing the show, was who I was aligned with. We were a united front."

Moving On, Moving Up A string of actresses filled the dumb blonde role, as DeWitt and Ritter kept the show alive until 1984, through several cast changes and a few spin-offs.

Ironically, before joining the free-frolicking Three's Company, Ritter was best known for playing a minister on The Waltons. He won an Emmy in the show's final season, and endured through the years as one of the most familiar faces on TV, often as a guest star in such shows as Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity.

Ritter, who was 54, earned high praise for his work in the 1996 film Sling Blade as well as his appearance on Broadway in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party.

In ABC's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, Ritter's final sitcom role was as a dad trying to rein in two daughters, much as Chrissy and Janet's parents tried to rein them in.

The times change, and the younger generation becomes the parents. TV viewers embraced Ritter in both roles, a rare accomplishment for any actor.

"John is in a class with the truly great, great comedians," says Martin Short, "I've seen very few people have the grace and sincerity that he would combine when he would do physical comedy, you know, as great as anyone ever did .