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Pittsburgh native Widdoes directed Ritter's final episode

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Pittsburgh native James Widdoes, a regular director on ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," was directing the episode that was in production last week during which star John Ritter first began to feel ill.

"Nothing particularly unusual happened on the set," Widdoes said. "As all actors have at one time or another, John certainly had said, 'I'm not feeling very well; can I go lie down?' I said, of course. We had enough work we could do without him for a couple hours. John was not the kind of person to abuse anything like that. If he didn't feel well, he didn't feel well. That was the last time I talked to him, when he asked if he could go upstairs."

That was at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. By 10 p.m., Ritter, who would have turned 55 today, had died of a torn aorta.

"It was so hard to believe," Widdoes said. "First of all, the vitality of John going into every day, coupled with the speed with which it all happened. I was home at my dinner table, having conversations with my daughter about Sept. 11, and at 8 o'clock, [executive producer] Flody [Suarez] called to say it isn't food poisoning, it's his heart. At 8:30, he called again to say it's a lot worse."

Widdoes set out for the hospital, arriving 15 minutes after Ritter died.

"I just loved him," Widdoes said. "He was the spirit of what was good about that show, and he touched a lot of people."

Widdoes and other members from the "8 Simple Rules" cast and crew gathered Sunday to be interviewed for a tribute to Ritter that aired last night on ABC.

"Shock, sadness, grief, disbelief -- it just couldn't happen to him," Widdoes said. "He was too present in our lives and, really, continues to be. This guy went out on the top of his life. He was loving his family, loving his wife, his 5-year-old daughter, whose birthday was that day. He loved this show, too, and loved the people on the show. They were his second family."

Discussions about the future of "Simple Rules" began this week, Widdoes said.

"Anybody who knew John at all could sit there and say there is no way John would want this group to break apart," Widdoes said. "That's on a very human level. On the other hand, on a professional level, when [retooling a show is] tried, they rarely succeed creatively. So those things add to the conflict already going on in our minds, the sorrow and grief. At the end of the day, I would guess we will try something, and I don't know what that is."

Late yesterday, ABC announced the show will go on with Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, dying, leaving wife Cate (Katey Sagal) to raise the couple's three children. The season premiere and two additional completed episodes will begin airing next week, as originally scheduled.The fourth episode, a one-hour special, will be set after Hennessy's death.

"He was just one of those guys," Widdoes said of his co-worker and friend. "Nobody who ever met him, who'd seen him or heard of him, didn't have some affection for him. To lose him so young, it rocked everybody."


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.

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