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John Ritter, RIP

Last year, I watched 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter as part of a piece I was doing on the state of the family sitcom. The show itself wasn't terribly impressive, but I remember really enjoying every minute John Ritter was on the screen. This was not surprising: Ritter had a gift for making you want to watch him.

Ritter defined professionalism, throwing himself into every performance and giving it his best, regardless of how crappy the source material was. It was evident that he loved what he did, because he did it so thoroughly and so well. Last year was also the year he played JD's dad on Scrubs, and his performance made me think of Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman: Attention must be paid.

It was impossible to ignore John Ritter -- not when he was playing manic horndog Jack Tripper, not when he was providing a quiet, vulnerable conscience in Sling Blade, not when he was bringing Clifford the Big Red Dog to life. Ritter was skilled in balancing comedy with the unfunny aspects of humanity -- pride, lust, greed or cowardice.

His real gift, however, may have been in making us relate to -- or even like -- his characters even when we knew they would drive us nuts in real life or, in one case, kill us on account of being an evil robot. That's a talent that too few actors bring to television. And now we have one fewer to do it.


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