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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jack of Hearts: Remembering John Ritter

2009's somber summer of celebrity death and our nation's most profound day of mourning sadly intersect this 9/11 with the sixth anniversary of John Ritter's tragic passing.

Yes, it's been six years since the Three's Company and Slingblade star suddenly succumbed to an uncommon but lethal heart defect known as acute aortic dissection. His untimely demise, like that of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, broke millions of hearts—including my own.

I'll never forget the fateful 5 a.m. phone call that jolted me from a peaceful sleep on Sept. 12, 2003. On the other end: the ominous voice of a TV news magazine reporter who'd covered my Three's Company book's publication—and Jack Tripper's alter ego's gracious support of same—years earlier.

"Did you hear about John Ritter?" she asked with tell-tale trepidation.

I wanted to rewind the world forever to avoid hearing what would inevitably leave her lips.

"He collapsed on the set of 8 Simple Rules. They rushed him to the ER right across the street in Burbank, but it was too late. He died a few hours later. I think it was his heart."

His heart. His heart? His heart? How could this happen to one of the only Hollywood stars whose heart remained infinitely bigger than his head? This kind, caring man gave so much of his heart, only to have it give out on him? What a cruel irony.

The reporter's words were razor-sharp succinct and simple. Yet in that moment they were also as incomprehensible as the broken utterances I mustered in response. It would take years to wrap my head and heart around the fact that John was gone.

What has sunk in, though, and never left me is an even more poignant irony: This enormously talented, versatile actor whose young-at-heart, as-seen-on-TV silliness helped me and so many others momentarily transcend our so-not-very-Brady childhood left us before he had a chance—personally or professionally—to fully outgrow his own boyish charm.

Like Michael Jackson and Farrah—and their childlike giggles—John will forever epitomize the youthful spirit and wide-eyed wonder that endeared him to generations of TV audiences. Perhaps that is the small bit of solace we can find in the premature passings of our childhood idols. After the tears have cleared, I for one would much rather escape again in the magical performances they left us than try in vain to grasp why only the good die young.

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