In 2003 the world was left in shock after the unexpected death of John Ritter. It turned out that the actor died suddenly at the age of 54 from a rare but deadly disease. And now his widow, Amy Yasbeck, is speaking out about how she is honoring his legacy.
From an early age, after all, Ritter seemed destined for screen success. That’s because his mother, Dorothy Fay, worked as an actress, and his father, Tex Ritter, starred in musical Westerns. Yet the future star actually led the student body at Hollywood High School and originally planned to go into politics.
Ritter even decided to study psychology at the University of Southern California. He then realized, however, that he was more interested in performing. So he transferred to the university’s School of Dramatic Arts and studied theater arts instead. And after his graduation, Ritter got his start in the acting industry.
Ritter’s first TV role came opposite Burt Reynolds in the television show Dan August. The series also starred his soon-to-be Three’s Companycastmate, Norman Fell. And after that, the actor appeared in The Barefoot Executiveand shows such as M*A*S*Hand Hawaii Five-O.
Ritter then earned the larger part of Reverend Matthew Fordwick in The Waltons. He actually featured in several episodes of the show from 1972 to 1976 – but left after he landed a leading role in Three’s Company. The sitcom followed three roommates – including Ritter’s Jack Tripper – and aired for eight seasons in total.
Ritter was subsequently praised for his performance and in 1984 won both a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy Award for his efforts. He also reprised the character for the short-lived spin-off series Three’s A Crowd. And in the years since those shows’ endings, Ritter has racked up more than 100 acting credits and appeared on Broadway.
Some of Ritter’s other biggest roles, for instance, came in the shows Hoopermanand Hearts Afire. And later in his life, he voiced the titular character of Clifford the Big Red Dogand starred in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Along with his great success on television, too, he starred in movies such as Bad Santaand Problem Child.
As for his personal life, Ritter first got married in 1977, the same year that Three’s Companypremiered. On that occasion, he tied the knot with fellow actor Nancy Morgan, who is perhaps best known for starring in Ron Howard’s directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto. The couple have three children too: Tyler, Carly and Jason.
Both Tyler and Jason have since followed their parents into show business. Tyler, for instance, was a main character in sitcom The McCarthysfrom 2014 to 2015. And more recently, he has appeared in Arrowin a recurring capacity.
Meanwhile, Jason has had lead roles in shows such as Joan of Arcadia, The Classand The Event. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his performance in the television series Parenthood. And in 2017, he starred in Kevin (Probably) Saves the Worldbefore its cancellation.
Yet Ritter and Morgan divorced in 1996 after nearly two decades of marriage. That’s when he started dating Amy Yasbeck. The actress had previously starred alongside Ritter in the two Problem Childmovies before they’d started a relationship. They additionally appeared together in The Cosby Showand Wings.
Yet according to reports, Ritter apparently thought Yasbeck was too thin when they first met and made her eat a cream cheese bagel. He also reportedly doubted whether she was old enough to portray his wife, as she was 14 years younger than him. Nevertheless, in 2017 the actress told The Washington Timesthat it is “absolutely safe to assume” that Ritter was the love of her life.
Ritter and Yasbeck married in September 1999. At the time, they were already parents to a daughter named Stella Dorothy. The little girl had been born on September 11, 1998 – exactly five years before a personal tragedy struck the Ritter family.
On September 11, 2003, Ritter was on the set of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughterfor a rehearsal. The family sitcom also starred Katey Sagal, Kaley Cuoco and Amy Davidson. Henry Winkler, a close friend of Ritter’s, was guest starring in that particular episode.
So the pals were chatting, and Ritter told Winkler that he was tired, despite the fact that he’d had a “long nap” that day already. Winkler jokingly replied, “Yeah, you’re always tired.” But before long, Ritter began to feel worse.
That afternoon, Ritter told director James Widdoes, “I feel a little sick to my stomach.” Sagal could also tell that something was wrong – although she never could have imagined just how serious it was. “He was sweating and didn’t look right,” she recalled to People magazine.
Widdoes then instructed Ritter to go and rest in his dressing room. “We thought it was the stomach flu,” he said. “I told him to go lie down.” But Sagal encouraged the assistant director to keep an eye on the actor, and they soon realized that he was getting worse.
Ritter was in fact vomiting and sweating while complaining of chest pains. An on-set doctor then advised him that he needed to go straight to the hospital. He was therefore taken to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center across the street, which was also where he had come into the world. Yet despite his alarming symptoms, the star was confident that he would be all right.
“Don’t worry; it’s going to be fine,” Ritter told a crew member with a smile as he was taken to the hospital. But, according to Yasbeck, once there he was diagnosed with a heart attack. Yet even that wasn’t accurate – and it proved to be a fatal mistake.
As a result of this diagnosis, Ritter was given blood thinners. But it turned out that he’d actually had an aortic dissection that had not been diagnosed. This occurs when there is a tear in the aortic wall.
The aorta is the primary blood vessel that works to transport blood to different parts of the body. So when its wall weakens, an aortic aneurysm can take place. This in itself is the 13th-leading cause of death in the United States, proving fatal for roughly 15,000 to 20,000 people each year.
But what is far less common is an aortic dissection. This can be caused if the aneurysm is untreated and leads to a tear in the wall. It can then mean that blood can start flowing inside the layers of the aorta. So once it was discovered that Ritter had developed this rare problem, doctors scrambled to repair the rupture.
Ritter was reportedly in good spirits and even continued to make jokes as he was taken into surgery. However, he died later that evening during the operation. “He went very quickly,” 8 Simple Rules’ executive producer Tom Shadyac told People.
And in the 15 years since Ritter’s sudden death, Yasbeck has done her part to honor his legacy. For instance, the actress set up the John Ritter Foundation and initially gave funds to the University of Southern California, his alma mater. But then she realized that it was important to raise awareness about the often fatal condition that killed Ritter.
So then a medical foundation was born too. And Yasbeck now spends some of her time educating others about treatment and supporting families of sufferers. “I try to be specific and real about the risk,” she told Healthline in 2017. “When you talk to people, you’re talking about their families.”
On the foundation’s website, then, is a bunch of “Ritter Rules” that might help people to establish whether they could be dealing with the disease. Yasbeck has also stressed that it’s important to recognize symptoms and avoid a misdiagnosis like the one Ritter was given.
“When aortic dissection is confused with heart disease, it’s fatal,” Yasbeck explained. The website therefore details how aortic dissection can be diagnosed and points out that it’s crucial this is done as soon as possible. Without a diagnosis or surgery, in fact, death becomes 1 percent more risky each hour.
Ritter’s widow is also aware that doctors sometimes mention her husband to patients and their families if they are suffering from the same disease. So Yasbeck wants these people to have the proper knowledge if they research his name. “If their doctor has said that name to them in any capacity, I want them to have the right information and know where to go and what to do,” she explained on Lifestyle Magazine.
Yasbeck further spoke about her work for the foundation on the show in April 2017. There she revealed that she lived her life by following a mantra that she had heard from Michelle Obama. “Be kind and be useful,” the 56-year-old said.
“Really that’s it, if you think about it,” Yasbeck continued. “In your marriage, in your life, in your community, in your church. And the kindest and most useful thing that I and our family can do is to share John’s story.”
Yasbeck explained that she was turning her own grief into something that could help others. “You can’t alleviate your own suffering; that’s up to higher powers and time,” she said. “But to alleviate someone else’s suffering or to have them be able to avoid that with knowledge and medicine, it’s everything. It becomes a joyful thing.”
Inevitably, though, there was lawsuit following Ritter’s passing. In 2004 Yasbeck filed a suit for wrongful death against Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and some of its doctors for $67 million. The hospital eventually settled for $9.4 million, and other doctors also reached settlements out of court. In 2008, however, a jury found that others had not done anything wrong.
During the course of the lawsuit, co-star Sagal testified at the trial. She described Ritter as being a “funny man who was funny like nobody’s business.” And the actress is just one of several celebrities who were in mourning after Ritter’s death.
Suzanne Somers, who worked with Ritter in Three’s Company, admitted that she too was devastated. “I’m so sad for the family. We lost a good one; it was so unfinished,” she said at the time. And their co-star Joyce DeWitt added that the 54-year-old was “impossible to forget. Impossible not to love.”
Yet through her grief, Yasbeck supported 8 Simple Rulesgoing on without Ritter. The actor’s character in the series was subsequently depicted as having died, and the show continued to run until 2005. Ritter was even nominated for an Emmy for the role after his death.
Some projects that Ritter completed filming before he died were also released posthumously. These included Clifford’s Really Big Movieand Bad Santa. Yasbeck has continued acting too, with appearances in episodes of That’s So Raven, Modern Familyand Pretty Little Liars.
In addition, Yasbeck has created the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases. The program was developed in partnership with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. And it aims to pinpoint genetic mutations that can cause aortic aneurysms and dissections.
Through this, the hope is that more people will discover a predisposition to the disease early and therefore be able to prevent it from becoming fatal. And Yasbeck admits that her work in memory of her husband allows her to feel closer to him. “I share his world with others and that allows me to never run out of him,” she told Healthline.
But the pain is still there. Ritter’s son Tyler has admitted that as exciting as it is to have success in the acting industry, it’s not quite the same without his dad there to see it. And he has also revealed how the birth of his son, Benjamin, in June 2017 made him feel more linked to his father. “Some people had braced me for it, saying, ‘It’s going to be the most beautiful moment of your life and probably the hardest moment of your life knowing your dad’s not here,’” he told Entertainment Tonight.
“It was actually more affirming to see him born,” Tyler continued, adding that he wondered “if what I’m feeling now for Benjamin is what my dad felt for me. I’m starting to see the world through [my father’s] eyes and feeling closer and more connected to him.”