If you were a latchkey kid during a certain era, John Ritter was probably as close a television friend you could have. There was Letterman. There was the Brady Bunch. There was Cosby and Alex P. Keaton and there were Three’s Company reruns, which basically dominated my television set back in the day, much like Seinfeld and Friends reruns dominate syndication today.
I have seen every Three’s Company episode, most of them more than once. During my formative years, I learned way more than I probably should have about sex from Three’s Company. It was a bawdy show for the time (in fact, it still is), but there was an underlying sweetness to all the horn-dogging that somehow made it feel harmless and fun.
Believe it or not, Three’s Company is also the first show I ever saw that mentioned the word “gay” in it, and though John Ritter’s character, Jack Tripper, pretended to be gay for the benefit of his landlord, and trotted out all the stereotypes, it was a remarkable character for its time to me for reasons that might not be readily apparent. It’s because through much of my early life growing up in a predominantly homophobic state, surrounded predominantly by homophobic people, my strongest association with the term “gay” was Jack Tripper. This man:
How is it possible to associate anything derogatory, anything hateful, or anything anti-God with John Ritter? Even before I fully understood what an amazing, sweet guy John Ritter actually was, there was something infinitely lovable about Jack Tripper, even if all he wanted to do was sleep with every woman that crossed his eyeline.
So when, a few years later, I found out that my own Dad was gay, my response was not shock or revulsion, as we had been taught to feel about homosexuality in the part of the country I grew up in, where our Christian teachers would remark, “I wish they’d come up with a pill to cure homosexuality.” No, what I felt was affection, the same kind of affection I had attached to Jack Tripper, the lovable, sex-scoundrel turned masterchef. It didn’t matter that Jack Tripper’s character wasn’t actually gay; it also didn’t matter that he inhabited broader stereotypes about gay people. It was a positive association. What mattered to me was that he was a good guy, in his own way, and that he was OK to let his landlord believe that he was gay. No one where I lived would’ve allowed anyone to think that they were gay for any reason. His landlord may have called him “twinkletoes,” but Mr. Roper didn’t think he was revolting. Mr. Roper didn’t spit profanities around him. Mr. Roper didn’t suggest he was going to hell. Mr. Roper never called him an abomination.
How could he have?
John Ritter died ten years ago today, and the world lost a guy that everyone who knew him seems to describe as great, sweet, amazing, and giving. It may have been the first celebrity death that profoundly affected me. My stomach fell out of my goddamn chest when I found out about his passing. It hurt in a surprisingly sudden way. Tears streaked out of my eyes like I’d been hit in the nose with a basketball.
Before he died, however, he filmed a movie called Sling Blade in my hometown. In that movie, which has so many personal connections for me — a steel bridge, where I committed an act of vandalism that would get me arrested; an actual mental hospital where my mother would live after she attempted suicide, and where my father would later deliver newspapers as a morning delivery boy; a dollar store where I was in my first car accident; and a Dairy Queen, where my Dad would occasionally take us for ice cream — John Ritter once again played a tender, sympathetic, comforting gay man, although he was a little weird, too. The fact that he did so, and in my own hometown no less, meant more to me than it probably should’ve. Why? Because when I came home from college that summer, I mentioned to my father that the movie was being filmed there, and it was that conversation that led to my own father outing himself to me (though, I’d known for a decade, I never let on).
It felt something like full circle: A decade after the man who helped to inform my opinions on gay men prompted my father to come out of the closet. Of course, I didn’t care that my father was gay! How could I? My strongest frame of reference was this guy.