John Ritter, Star of Stage, Screen and Nickelodeon

John Ritter was getting frustrated. The Transom was pushing him, hard , to consider whether his part in Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party –a bona fide Broadway hit–was calculated to legitimize his Three’s Company -haunted career. But Mr. Ritter was not taking the bait. “I’ve never done a thing just because it was good for my career,” he protested politely.

“No, it’s not like that,” Mr. Ritter continued, his voice increasingly clipped. “I don’t really think in those terms. I don’t come out and go”–here he put on a loud stage voice–”‘ A-ha! I told you, father, that someday I would avenge you ….’”

Wait a minute: Here in New York, practically everyone wants to avenge their fathers, or bury them, or something just as psychologically complex. We are a city of ambitious, neurotic people, and as such, we tend to welcome other neurotics. But Mr. Ritter isn’t that kind of guy, even though he probably could be. His father, after all, was the cowboy movie star and country singer Tex Ritter, which means that he grew up with fame and its consequences before we knew there were consequences.

Sitting at a table at Sardi’s, Mr. Ritter sipped his glass of tomato juice. His lips puckered and his eyes crinkled in distaste. “Wow!” he said explosively, recoiling into the warm red leatherette of the corner banquette. “Bad year for the tomato crop!”

The moment called for a laugh track, but Mr. Ritter was not in Burbank–and the notion of him here since October is strange. When he debuted as Jack Tripper in Three’s Company in 1977, Mr. Ritter was everything that New Yorkers were not: a man who smiled, winked and tripped through situation after situation without ever losing the lid to his inner life. He was the antithesis of the 70′s sexual predators (Richard Gere!) who prowled through Looking for Mr. Goodbar , released the same year that Jack Tripper started stumbling through the sex farce. Though he baffled Norman Fell’s Mr. Roper with some occasional swishing, Mr. Ritter was essentially an affable prime-time cipher, and if you were freaked by Plato’s Retreat or Studio 54, you could stay home, watch Three’s Company and convince yourself that the free-love 70′s weren’t all that scary.

So harmless was Mr. Ritter’s persona, in fact, that it took until March 2001 for someone to notice an accidental X-rated moment in episode 161 (“The Charming Stranger”). As Jeannette Walls reported on MSNBC.com, a viewer recently called Nickelodeon (which re-runs the show) to say that one of Mr. Ritter’s testicles is visible beneath his blue boxers as he plops down onto a bed. Nickelodeon is editing the short scene out for future broadcasts. When asked about the controversy, Mr. Ritter was characteristically canny: “I’ve requested that [Nickelodeon] air both versions, edited and unedited, because sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you don’t.”

In other respects, Mr. Ritter isn’t quite as cuddly as he seemed almost 25 years ago, having taken a chisel to the Jack Tripper Jell-O mold via some dark supporting roles in Sling Blade , Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Felicity and the recently released independent film Panic , not to mention his friendship with former President Bill Clinton.

But now that he’s co-starring with Henry (The Fonz) Winkler in a Neil Simon play, The Dinner Party –the first Broadway show to make back its money this season–Mr. Ritter is back, commercially at least, somewhere in Jack Tripper turf. And as becomes evident, it’s his turf partly because it’s just like him.

Even at Sardi’s, for example, Mr. Ritter could not escape those Jack Tripper moments. When The Dinner Party opened in October, the Sardi’s management affixed Mr. Ritter’s caricature to its walls of fame, which also carry the likenesses of Jackie Gleason, Laurence Olivier and even Gary Burghoff. The evening of Mr. Ritter’s appearance, the caricature had been removed from the wall so that he could have his picture taken with it, and Mr. Ritter was telling the story of how Jerry Lewis once saw the drawing and told him it looked like his teeth were upside down.

Suddenly, the photographer setting up his equipment next to the banquette knocked an enormous flashbulb onto the table. Glasses of Coke, water and tomato juice splattered Mr. Ritter’s brown suit and his caricature–which, luckily, was protected by its frame.

“He’s stealing my schtick!” Mr. Ritter protested. “I’m usually the one who spills stuff and trips!”

“His enthusiasm is so enormous, it’s almost hard to believe,” said Manny Azenberg, Neil Simon’s longtime producer. Mr. Azenberg had a theory about why Mr. Ritter–and Mr. Winkler, for that matter–were working at the Music Box Theater. “Somewhere down in the bottom of both of their stomachs, they wanted to do the Broadway-theater moment,” Mr. Azenberg said. “I think they needed it for the résumé of their souls.”

Mr. Ritter’s response was, “Oh, that Manny–he does go on.”

Why, then, was he here? Mr. Ritter smiled. “Luck, I guess,” he replied. His beard hides a face that has grown rounder with the years. His eyes still look mischievous, although he uses prim black glasses when he needs to read the menu.

Mr. Ritter said he became famous “in between Fonzie fever and Mork mania.” And his career can still be fixed between those two comic actors. Robin Williams, of course, shot into the stratosphere, then dwindled into his current near-vanished state. Mr. Winkler decided to work behind the camera and essentially fell off the face of the earth, ensuring that he will be thought of as Fonzie– just Fonzie–for years to come. As for Mr. Ritter, he has already put quite a bit of distance between himself and his best-known character.

John Ritter has made more than 25 TV movies. He currently provides the voice of Clifford, the Big Red Dog on PBS, and he’s recently made memorable guest appearances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity . On Feb. 12, the Harvard Lampoon gave Mr. Ritter its annual Elmer Award for Comedic Excellence.

The Buffy and Felicity appearances were of special note because, in both of them, Mr. Ritter showed that he was not afraid to take a Ginsu to his image. On Buffy , Mr. Ritter played the über -nice boyfriend of the vampire slayer’s mother who was, in reality, an evil robot looking to destroy Buffy and her friends.

On Felicity , Mr. Ritter appeared as Ben’s flawed but likable alcoholic father, who then creeped out the television audience by making a pass at his son’s girlfriend.

“I think of [Tom] Hanks a lot when I think of Ritter,” said David Greenwalt, a producer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer . Mr. Greenwalt said that he co-wrote the Buffy episode with the series’ creator, Joss Whedon, “and we thought, ‘Who’s a wholesome, all-American guy that would really be fun to turn into a psycho, serial-killing robot? John Ritter!’” When Mr. Ritter showed up on the set, Mr. Greenwalt remembered that “he was great with all the sincerity … and then he just whacked [Buffy] across the face and you were so frightened.”

Film director Peter Bogdanovich actually cast Mr. Ritter, before his Three’s Company gig, in three films: 1976′s Nickelodeon and 1981′s They All Laughed , which co-starred the actress Dorothy Stratten, and 1992′s Noises Off . The director said he cast Mr. Ritter because “he had this extraordinary naturalness. He didn’t seem to be acting; he seemed absolutely real. There was no artifice to it …. He’s got flawless comedic timing and he moves beautifully, eloquently …. He’s kind of an American everyman.”

Mr. Ritter and his father Tex both tried out for different parts in The Last Picture Show , and Mr. Bogdanovich said he thought that “one of the dumbest things I ever did” was not casting Mr. Ritter as Sonny Crawford, the film’s lead. Mr. Bogdanovich remembered that when he was shooting Nickelodeon , Mr. Ritter told him he was auditioning for a sitcom pilot, Three’s Company . “I said, ‘I hope you don’t get it.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I won’t get it.’ I said, ‘You’ll be tied up forever.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I won’t get it.’”

Mr. Ritter got it. He said there was a time when “I would meet actors in black turtlenecks and sunglasses with pomade in their hair and I’d introduce myself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m John Ritter. Three’s Company . I’m sorry.’”

But two people made him stop apologizing. “Lucille Ball,” he said, “publicly went on record and said she really liked me, and said favorable things with ‘Buster Keaton’ in the same sentence.”

The other was Mr. Ritter’s friend Jon Voight, who told him that watching Three’s Company had brought him and his daughter, Angelina Jolie–whom Mr. Ritter once agreed to call on her 12th birthday–closer together.

Of course, Ms. Jolie and Mr. Ritter have one more thing in common now that she’s married to actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who co-starred with Mr. Ritter in the short-lived Harry and Linda Bloodworth Thomason sitcom Hearts Afire, and who directed him in his best theatrical-film performance yet, as a gay shopkeeper in Sling Blade .

” Sling Blade was three hours and 30 minutes when we first did it,” Mr. Ritter said. “I said, ‘Billy, you don’t need to show the bus coming into the station, everybody getting up, then you get up, then the bus goes all the way away, you’re just standing there …. Just have the bus be there and people getting off and him just walking off, looking around. Take a couple beats and move on.’” Mr. Thornton’s response, according to Mr. Ritter, was: “John, I’m not doing Knots Landing , O.K.?”

Mr. Ritter continued: “I said, ‘ Oo-oo-kay –if that’s the way you want to do it!’” Then he smiled. “I’m so glad he didn’t listen to me.”

Mr. Ritter’s role in Hearts Afire led to his meeting the Jack Tripper of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1992, the Thomasons asked Mr. Ritter to introduce their friend Bill Clinton at his first big California campaign dinner. That was just the beginning of Mr. Clinton’s love affair with Tinseltown. “I worked with Hillary’s dad, and I met Bill’s mom and Hillary’s mom. And Roger Clinton, his brother, did the warm-up [for the Hearts Afire audience] with his rock ‘n’ roll band.” Mr. Ritter also played Trivial Pursuit with the First Family in the Thomasons’ Santa Barbara living room. There is a rumor that Mr. Ritter coached Mr. Clinton for the debates and gave him pointers on being more telegenic. “What other urban legends are there?” Mr. Ritter asked, and then added: “I never touched Monica. We were just good friends.”

After his 19-year marriage to actress Nancy Morgan dissolved in 1996, Mr. Ritter married actress Amy Yasbeck, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter, Stella. He has three children from his previous marriage: a 16-year-old son, Tyler; an 18-year-old daughter, Carly; and a 21-year-old son, Jason, who attends New York University and just got his Equity card for an off-Broadway play he did with Mary Steenburgen.

Today, when people come up to him and ask him what he’s been doing since Three’s Company, Mr. Ritter said that he likes to say he’s retired from acting and gone into a new line of work. He tells them: “I’m in the shoe business. I own a store in Covina, Calif., specializing in wingtips with tassels.”

Why does he say that? The Transom asked him.

“It amuses me,” Mr. Ritter replied.

–Rebecca Traister

Julia Roberts’ Nutty Waldorf Salute

On March 4, the American Museum of the Moving Image saluted Julia Roberts’ 13 years in film with a bat mitzvah of sorts at the Waldorf-Astoria, complete with awkward cocktails, gloppy meatloaf and hyperbolic speeches from important yet uninteresting people.

Drinks began at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby. After cracking jokes with reporters, the debonair George Clooney made his way toward Steven Soderbergh, who is directing a new film with Mr. Clooney and Ms. Roberts called Ocean’s 11. Among other things, they spoke of body hair, which Mr. Clooney sprouts at an abnormal rate. He said he shaves both his unibrow and his forehead: “I’m an apeman.”

Meanwhile, Public Advocate Mark Green and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone were making nice with Democratic entertainment bigwigs. “See, I already picked up some votes!” Mr. Vallone said as he shook hands with well-wishers. Mr. Green, meanwhile, set his sights higher. “Good luck in March!” Mr. Green shouted at Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein as he walked by. “Good luck in November!” Mr. Weinstein replied.

Finally, Ms. Roberts shambled into the room with her boyfriend, bodyguard, assistant and members of the press. “This dress is too long,” she declared. After shaking a few hands (and brushing aside The Transom), Ms. Roberts repaired to a corner table where James Gandolfini was sitting.

The dinner bell chimed and the crowd retreated to the banquet hall. Bob Balaban, Ms. Roberts’ professorial co-star in her latest film, The Mexican , remained seated. He was still hoping to wish Ms. Roberts well. Before he could, though, a fan rushed up to him and gushed, “Steven Soderbergh! You’re great!” Mr. Balaban smiled wryly. “No, no, I’m not Steven Soderbergh–but I’d be happy to pretend ….”

At 7:30, the bat mitzvah began in earnest. Diane Sawyer stepped up to the podium, playing the local Hadassah chapter president. She called Ms. Roberts “a girl whose skin is so permeable that she faces the world somehow without armor …. You are the most amazing contradiction … as if your peanut butter came wrapped in sequins or your terry cloth had sable trim.” Dermot Mulroney was the disaffected post-pubescent friend, decrying the tabloids’ “newfound reputation for legitimacy.” They apparently “said that we were seen going to the gym together, which we were not.” When it came time to introduce his clip, Mr. Mulroney kept it cool. “It says here,” he intoned, “Julia’s ‘identified with romantic comedy, [but] she is equal to the toughest dramatic role as well ….’”

And David Letterman played the obligatory weird uncle. For reasons clear only to himself, Mr. Letterman taped his speech ahead of time. “I’m staying at the Waldorf this very minute. I’m upstairs going through the mini-bar,” he said. “You’re eating bad chicken, I’m upstairs loaded.” He went on, “I wanted to be a special part of this evening, and I thought and I thought and I thought, ‘What can I possibly do that will mean anything to Julia Roberts on such an occasion as this one?’ I did come up with something, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.” He cut to a film clip. “That’s right! It’s a monkey washing a cat! God bless you. Thanks, everybody!”

–Ian Blecher

Disney Foster Wallace

As reported in an item entitled “No Joke” in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Feb. 23, David Foster Wallace, the author of the mind-warping novel Infinite Jest and a regular contributor to Harper’s Magazine , was recently named Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College. Mr. Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, perhaps said it best: “Yes, you couldn’t make it up if you tried,” she confirmed when contacted by The Transom.

David Foster Wallace, a brand-name professor? This is the man who set his masterwork in a nightmarish future of corporate omnipresence, where the calendar had been subsidized and the passage of time was marked as “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” or “Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.”

Upon closer inspection, The Transom learned that Mr. Wallace will not actually be directly endorsed by the owners of the Magic Kingdom and the Disney Cruise Line. The chair at the California college was created with a $1.75 million gift from Roy Edward Disney, nephew of Walt and vice chairman of the Walt Disney Company. What had really excited Mr. Wallace, his agent explained, was the possibility of there being an actual Disney chair. Contacted in Bloomington, Ill., via his neighbor’s e-mail account (which the neighbor was letting him use in exchange for Mr. Wallace having kindly lent him a portable pump after their basements flooded a couple of days ago), Mr. Wallace confirmed his enthusiasm vis-à-vis the seating–”maybe with little doe-eyed cartoon characters carved into the armrest or something,” he wrote. “No such luck. And in fact, the people at Pomona don’t even really call it the ‘Disney Chair’; they call it the ‘Red Chair,’ because apparently this Disney’s first two initials are ‘R.E.’”

So what about turning into one of those dreaded brand offerings, like the Purdue Wonderchicken or the Trial Size Dove Bar? Isn’t it deliciously ironic? “If by irony you mean taking $$ from an endowment funded by a Disney,” he wrote in his unmistakably lengthy style, “it doesn’t seem to me quite as icky as taking State of Illinois tax money for the unbelievably cushy gig I have at IL State U. I already have ‘tenure,’ by the way, at ISU–which I think means I can’t get fired unless I snort H off the president’s desk with him standing there or something–and my Dad (who’s been sort of my consigliori through the whole do-I-take-the-Pomona-job-or-stay-at-ISU-or-quit-even-part-time-teaching Decision Process) says you never give up a tenured job unless the new place also gives you tenure, so I made that a condition.”

All right, then. What Mr. Wallace will be doing until his Disney gig starts in the fall of 2002 is characteristically open to interpretation. The press release says he’s on a MacArthur grant. But from his neighbor’s desk, he tapped: “I’m just going to moss out here in downstate IL until then.”

–Elisabeth Franck