Best known as the loose-limbed klutz Jack Tripper from the hit ABC sitcom Three's Company, John Ritter also had a long (if undistinguished) film career, dating back to the early '70s. Perhaps taking a cue from Robin Williams, Ritter fashioned a full beard when he put his slapstick days behind him, remaking himself as a serious dramatic actor both on television and in the movies in the 1990s. Ritter was born in Burbank, CA, on September 17, 1948, the second son of Western singing stars Tex Ritter and Dorothy Fay, whose talent for song he once admitted he did not inherit. Ritter was class body president at Hollywood High School before enrolling at the University of Southern California, where he majored in psychology and minored in architecture. In his third year, he decided to take a drama class taught by Nina Foch, and quickly changed his major, graduating in 1971. (He later studied with Stella Adler and the Harvey Lembeck Comedy Workshop.) His first film role was in the 1971 film The Barefoot Executive.
Minor roles during the 1970s finally gave way to major success in 1977, when Ritter was cast as the pratfalling roommate of two beautiful Southern Californian women on Three's Company. The program became one of the most popular on the air, known for its farcical scenarios based on wild misunderstandings, some of which were fueled by Ritter's Jack Tripper pretending to be gay to throw off the landlord. Ritter was praised for his sharp timing and rubbery ability to bounce around the set through all variety of physical comedy. His work earned him an Emmy. Having become a major television star, Ritter enjoyed the program's success through 1985, when its spin-off (Three's a Crowd) went off the air. He worked on TV movies during the show's run, and found more TV work awaiting him upon its conclusion (the dramedy Hooperman in 1988, the comedy Hearts Afire in 1992). His familiar mug and goofball shtick earned him leads in a handful of lesser film comedies in the late '80s and early '90s, including Real Men (1987), Skin Deep (1988), Stay Tuned (1992), and two Problem Child films (1990 and 1991), on the set of which he met future wife Amy Yasbeck.
Not satisfied with his comic pigeonholing, Ritter took well-received strides toward drama in the 1990s. He made a lasting impression on critics as a gay dollar-store owner in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade (1996), as well as a psychiatrist treating a hitman in Henry Bromell's Panic (2000). Ritter has also made recurring guest appearances on the hit television programs Ally McBeal and Felicity, the latter of which cast him in the agonizing role of a frequently relapsing alcoholic father. In 2002 Ritter returned to television in his own new comedy series, 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. Though the show proved a modest success, Ritter's sudden death due to aortic dissection in early September of 2003 left castmates and fans alike shocked and deeply saddened.