Ritter Crew Meet On Set To Grieve…

Wednesday, Sept. 17

On Friday, Sept. 12, the day after actor John Ritter died at age 54 from an unchecked heart ailment, the cast and crew of his ABC show, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter , met on the set in Burbank, Calif., to grieve. Co-stars, staffers and friends-some 300 people, including ABC president Susan Lyne-came forward, one by one, to fathom what had happened. Of those present, perhaps none knew Ritter better than director and critic Peter Bogdanovich, a friend for 33 years who was also a guest on the show.

“Everybody was really shaken up,” he recalled. “His TV family, the three children and TV wife, they were all sobbing. Everybody was talking about John, and they were all saying the same thing: He knew everybody’s name, he was very generous, very kind, unpretentious-he was very there , very in the moment, which is a cliché these days. I spoke and said the John they were describing was the same one I met 33 years ago. He hadn’t changed at all.”

Mr. Bogdanovich experienced a kind of empathic shock. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack at any moment,” he said. “I was so upset. I was just feeling so heartbroken.”

Mr. Bogdanovich met Mr. Ritter in 1970, when, as a young director, he invited Mr. Ritter and his father, the country-music singer Tex Ritter, to try out for roles in his breakthrough movie, The Last Picture Show . The idea was this: John Ritter would play Sonny Crawford, the callow youth who sleeps with the local football coach’s wife, and his father would play Sam the Lion, a grizzled cowboy.

But Ben Johnson got the part of the older man and won an Oscar for it. Mr. Bogdanovich said he had always regretted not giving John Ritter the part that was eventually played by Timothy Bottoms. “It was one of those mistakes in judgment,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine him in it because people can’t imagine him as a dramatic actor. He was like Jimmy Stewart.”

Mr. Bogdanovich recalled an interview he did with the Oscar-winning director George Stevens for Esquire in 1966, in which Stevens said of James Stewart’s casual grace as an actor, “He annihilated disbelief.”

“And John did that,” said Mr. Bogdanovich. “There are very few people who have that-that extraordinary kind of naturalness. He kept it right up until the end. He had it right when I met him, when he was 20. He never seemed to be acting.

“He was always a superb dramatic actor,” he continued, “which, unfortunately, many people never saw. He was great on the stage, too. He was one of the dearest people I’ve known, exactly what he seemed like on TV: warm-hearted, generous and kind. All the things he seemed to be, he was.”

In 1976, while Mr. Bogdanovich was directing Ritter in Nickelodeon , with Ryan O’Neal and Burt Reynolds, he won the part of Jack Tripper, the role that would make him a superstar and define his career-his persona-for better or worse.

“I said to him, ‘What if it’s a hit? I’ll never be able to use you again!'” said Mr. Bogdanovich. “We did work together twice more. And I was acting for him last week.”

Mr. Bogdanovich added, “The critics never thought much of that show, but you watch it and you see how brilliant he was. His timing! John could take a line that wasn’t funny and make it funny.”

Mr. Bogdanovich cast Mr. Ritter in the 1981 comedy They All Laughed -the last movie that Audrey Hepburn ever made-and then in the 1992 farce Noises Off . “He was a joy to direct, too-so open to anything,” he said. “It’s hard to describe how dexterous he was. He made it look so easy you never saw him working. He enjoyed it so much-that was part of it.”

Mr. Bogdanovich paused. He had just returned from Ritter’s funeral.

“I’ve never seen people so shattered, fucking destroyed by it,” he said. “He’s got four kids, and they’re all young. It was very tough. His first wife said the outpouring of affection from all around the country was extraordinary. People loved that boy …. “

Mr. Bogdanovich last saw Ritter on Wednesday, Sept. 10, the night before he died. He and Henry Winkler, another close friend of Ritter’s and a guest-star on the show, were not scheduled to show up until later the next day for shooting. By the time they arrived, Ritter had been taken to the hospital.

“The last time I saw him,” said Mr. Bogdanovich, “we were talking about a mutual friend of ours that we were worried about.” It was a casual conversation: Ritter told him he had to go to the dermatologist to have a growth removed from his back, and he joked to Mr. Bogdanovich that he would “donate it to the Actors Fund.” Mr. Bogdanovich laughed at that. Then he paused a moment.

“Then he said, ‘I love you, Peter,’ and I said, ‘I love you, John.’ That’s usually how we signed off.

“It’s a cliché, I guess,” he said, “but he was probably the nicest guy I ever knew.”

Tonight, Three’s Company on Nickelodeon. [Nickelodeon, 6, 11 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 18

On Sept. 10, Access Hollywood sent out a five-alarm media alert announcing that, “according to sources,” the Jennifer Lopez–Ben Affleck nuptials had been canceled, thereby throwing the known universe into an emotional tailspin. Access publicists were calling it “the biggest story of the fall.”

Wow!

“You gotta know the players,” explained Ron Silverstein, the producer of the show. “It was about relationships. While others were tabloiding the story up, we weren’t. All that trust adds up to a big scoop.” He also said it probably had something to do with the Dateline NBC special in July, in which Access host Pat O’Brien talked to the couple for the prime-time newsmagazine-a bit of synergy that infuriated news purists. Since the Dateline fracas, Mr. Silverstein has been arguing that Access is as legit as NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw .

“We follow the same exact standards,” he said. “It’s NBC News. We’re a news operation. We just happen to report on celebrities. We start a new show from scratch every morning at 5. It’s a crazy news show. Crazy .”

On the other hand, it’s not quite the same: Kabul still isn’t bolted down by PMK publicists.

“There is no show that goes to more uncomfortable places,” said Mr. Silverstein. “The celebrities know us. We present it in a fair way. We’ll give the facts, but it will be fair. We won’t exploit it.

“People made their sly comments after Dateline ,” he said, “but it’s just not true. Pat O’Brien has won how many news Emmys? Ten! We have nothing to be ashamed of. We flash it up more. Just because ours is flashier and we do it in a fast-paced, lighter way, don’t criticize us because we have a great set and great graphics-that’s presentation. The substance is there.”

So expect more Access with your NBC News. “Between the Today Show and Dateline , we do three things a week now,” said Mr. Silverstein. “It started out a small thing, now it’s really more and more.”

Tonight: fair, balanced and flashy . [WNBC, 4, 7:30 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 19

NBC Nightly News star Tom Brokaw is officially a “program anchor” for low-rated cable sister MSNBC, but it took a war with Iraq for him to show up there. On-air dignity demands an audience.

But on Sept. 10, Pat Buchanan and Bill Press, of MSNBC’s left-right banter act Buchanan & Press , invited Mr. Brokaw on as a guest. As it happens, Mr. Buchanan asked him what he thought of the rise of cable news. Mr. Brokaw wasn’t impressed. “When you have so much airtime to fill,” he said, “then it becomes kind of more of a distraction than engaging, and there’s not enough policy discussion that goes on with it. At the same time, I’m very grateful for C-Span, for example.”

Mr. Buchanan reminded Mr. Brokaw that network news “is not what it used to be.” But Mr. Brokaw maintained that his anchor chair-and his successor, Brian Williams-both have a nice, long future ahead of them. “I believe that there will be, for the foreseeable future, a place for network news,” he said. “And it’s demonstrated when there’s a speech by the President or we go to war, or when there’s a close Presidential election or a convention of some kind, or when a shuttle goes down. People come back-and one of the things that we’ve discovered demographically is that as people get into their late 40’s, early 50’s, they come back to the evening news.”

Tonight, Mr. Brokaw’s favorite cable channel brings you live, uncensored action from the floor of the House of Representatives. [CSPAN, 64, 6 p.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 20

Tonight, the great-great-grandmother of reality TV: 51 young women take a professional field trip to Atlantic City, get their own hotel rooms, meet, struggle, have late-night talks in their nighties, laugh, cry and battle to become the post-feminist Miss America.

Wa-ait a minute! ABC … why haven’t you stretched this show into a weeklong series? You must be daft! [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 21

Give me an E! Give me an M! M! Y! Tonight, TV loves itself to death with the 55th Annual Emmy Awards . [WNYW, 5, 8 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 22

Somebody get Robert Novak a subscription to In Touch , and step on it! After CNN’s Crossfire re-aired portions of Tucker Carlson’s interview with Britney Spears on Sept. 4, the Crossfire panelist and right-leaning Chicago Sun-Times columnist looked a little dazed:

Novak : Who exactly is Britney Spears?

James Carville : She’s from Kentwood, La. She’s one of the hottest rock stars.

Novak : I never heard of her. All right. [CNN, 10, 4:30 p.m.]

Tuesday, Sept. 23

“He had a unique voice. When he talked, his voice had a crisp, clear delivery, and you couldn’t stop listening to him,” recalled Karen Scott, the news director of WPIX-TV’s The WB11 News at Ten . She was describing Sean Kimerling, the weekend sports anchor and Emmy Award–winning broadcaster who died on Sept. 9 of complications from testicular cancer. He was 37.

“We’re in shock,” she said. “There was no time to say goodbye. I told him, I said, ‘Just focus on fighting this thing and getting better. We’re waiting for you to come back.'”

Kimerling discovered the cancer just four weeks ago and rapidly fell ill.

Ms. Scott said she’d hired him six years ago, when he was cutting his teeth as an anchor at an Oklahoma City, Okla., affiliate. For Kimerling, who grew up in Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County, returning to New York “was a homecoming, and it was a fantasy-come-true to be a sports broadcaster,” said Ms. Scott.

His producer and close friend, Jim Forzano, said Kimerling was beginning to carve out a niche for himself, defining his broadcast style-loose, jocular, a kinetic presence-and getting attention for it. A lifelong Mets fan, Kimerling aggressively pursued a job doing on-field interviews at Mets games, and it paid off: He began working with his hero, Hall of Fame ex-Mets pitcher and game announcer Tom Seaver. In 2002, he won an Emmy Award for Best Professional Sports Coverage.

“He loved it,” recalled Mr. Forzano. “Before the game, he’d be in the Mets locker room and do an interview.” Kimerling’s lucid, engaging facility moved to the point where he was put up front to verbally throw with Mr. Seaver. “The first two minutes of the game,” said Mr. Forzano, was Mr. Seaver “tossing to Sean on the field.”

The day Kimerling died, there was a moment of silence at Shea Stadium before the Mets-Marlins game.

Sean Kimerling was a broadcasting paradigm: His beaming, knowledgeable on-air persona combined the enthusiasm of an effusive New York fan with the informed cool of a true professional sports journalist-which was not far from the personality he exuded off the set. “To work with him-I didn’t feel like I was working,” Mr. Forzano said. “He was one of the guys. We probably joked on him every day to the point where I thought he was going to get angry, but he never did. We played golf all the time. Over the last six years, he turned out to be one of my closest friends.”

“He was a rising star,” said Ms. Scott. “He was too young to be taken from us.”

NYTV readers can send donations in Sean’s memory to:

The Sean Kimerling Testicular Cancer Foundation

29 Broadway

Suite No. 1412

New York City, N.Y. 10006