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ABC has yet to decide how to handle John Ritter's death

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

TV viewers were shocked by last week's death of John Ritter, star of the '70s hit "Three's Company" and the current ABC comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter."

John Ritter led ABC's comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." Also in the cast, from left, are Martin Spanjers, Kaley Cuoco, Katey Sagal and Amy Davidson. (Robert Trachtenberg/ABC)


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Shows handle actors' deaths in many different ways

Now more practical matters are weighing on ABC executives, who lost a star player just two weeks before the second- season premiere of "8 Simple Rules," the network's only marginal new comedy hit last season.

Three new episodes of "Rules" were filmed, with production on the fourth episode in progress when Ritter died of an undetected heart problem after complaining of discomfort on the "8 Simple Rules" set in Burbank, Calif.

Television series are occasionally forced to write around the death of an actor. Earlier this year, CBS's "The District" briefly shut down production so producers could chart a new course after the death of co-star Lynne Thigpen, who died in her sleep of an aneurysm.

"The way 'The District' handled Lynne Thigpen was actually quite elegant," said Amanda Lotz, an assistant professor of communication at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. "But being a drama narrative, the options are much greater. For '8 Simple Rules,' there doesn't seem to be an easy way."

Ritter was the star of the comedy series, not just a member of an ensemble. Ritter played Paul Hennessy, father of three teenagers, including two girls. Katey Sagal ("Married ... With Children") played Henes-sy's wife, Cate.

ABC has made no announcement about the future of "8 Simple Rules," although The Hollywood Reporter says the show will go on but a new actor will not take over Ritter's role as Paul Hennessy. Jamie Widdoes, a Pittsburgh native and executive producer/director on the series, did not return calls.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Ritter's character was the all-important center of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter."

"You take away the dad, the person who symbolizes those rules is gone, and you're left with 'My Teenage Daughter,' who is now fatherless, which is a bummer for a comedy," Thompson said. "I suppose they could try to bring in an uncle, but at 17, when you're on the verge of being independent anyway, it's going to really be a stretch."

Recasting seems unlikely, though it has been done. When Dick York's back problems forced him to leave "Bewitched" in the '60s, he was replaced by Dick Sargent without any explanation.

"In this case, it would be really difficult to do that because of the beloved status of the person who died," Thompson said. "I think it would be frowned upon by a lot of people who cover the media and a lot of people who watch it as well."

Denison's Lotz agreed that recasting wouldn't work.

"The cultural awareness of John Ritter as an actor is too high," she said. "It would be impossible for ABC to hide that. Obviously their audience knows this has happened."

In making a decision on the future of "8 Simple Rules," Lotz said, ABC will have to take the temperature of the audience and see what route will cause viewers the least discomfort and will be most likely to draw them back to a comedy now under a blanket of sadness.

"For the series to work as a comedy, it has to get past this very sad moment," she said. "Will an Uncle Bill-type character continue to remind the audience of the loss? The show is not necessarily a star vehicle, but it was largely built around Ritter's comedic ability. Finding someone who can step into that role seems to be quite a challenge."

When Redd Foxx died in October 1991 after suffering a heart attack on the set of CBS's "The Royal Family," producers hired Jackee ("227") to play a relative of Foxx's character.

" 'The Royal Family' tried to bring in someone as equally outrageous as Redd Foxx, and that idea made some degree of sense, but on this, the center of things was the dad."

Instead of replacing Ritter, "8 Simple Rules" might continue without a cast addition. Rather, the show's focus could shift to the interaction between the teenagers and their mother.

"It was a show they can't afford to lose, but a good reason it was a hit was probably because of John Ritter," Thompson said.

 
 
Networks pay tribute to Ritter

"A Life of Laughter: Remembering John Ritter," an ABC News special hosted by Diane Sawyer, will air from 8 to 9 tonight. It will include remembrances by Ritter's friends and co-stars, including Suzanne Somers, Joyce DeWitt, Katey Sagal, Henry Winkler, Jason Alexander and Marilu Henner.

From 9 a.m. to noon today, Game Show Network will feature Ritter's appearances on TV game shows, including "Family Feud," "Hollywood Squares" and "The Dating Game."

   
 

There's no taste issue regarding the broadcast of the three episodes that are complete, Thompson said, and if ABC decides to air them, they may get the highest ratings ever for "8 Simple Rules."

"You essentially deliver this enormous audience to that time slot and it's the opportunity while they've got them there to promote the living daylights out of whatever will be in that time slot next," he said. "But there isn't time to get a fixed version of '8 Simple Rules' going. And if they should try to fix it up for January, by that time, there's really no point anymore."

Thompson suggested ABC's most humane option would be to reassemble the cast and crew for an entirely new series in the future.

Ritter also provided the voice of "Clifford the Big Red Dog" on the animated PBS kids' show, but production on that series was complete and no future episodes were planned.

Upon hearing of Ritter's death, Pam Veasey, executive producer of "The District," thought back on her own experience with Lynn Thigpen's death earlier this year.

"As a television show, comedy or drama, you spend so much time with these people. ... You become an intimate family," Veasey said.

She wrote a note of condolence to the "8 Simple Rules" producers over the weekend.

"I wanted to tell them I understand that process and we lived it and we feel compelled to say we're thinking of them," she said. "It was just so reminiscent of what we went through."

Thigpen was a key member of "The District" ensemble, but she wasn't the focal point of the series, which made it less questionable how "The District" would move forward creatively. Veasey said everyone involved with the show took a week off except the writers, who had to reconceive the last three episodes of the season. They quickly decided Thigpen's character, Ella Farmer, would die with her.

Veasey also worked on another show touched by tragedy: NBC's "Gimme a Break." Star Dolph Sweet died four years into the sitcom's run.

"They did one episode [about his death] and then I don't recall they focused on it a lot," she said. But on "Break," Nell Carter was the star and Sweet was more of a supporting player. That's not the case with "8 Simple Rules." "That's why my first thought was would the show return on ABC? It was so built around John Ritter. I just feel for that crew and those people."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 19, 2003) The caption that accompanied Tuesday's story on how ABC will handle the death of John Ritter was incorrect. In identifying the cast of the comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," Amy Davidson was mistakenly identified as Kaley Cuoco and vice versa.

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