On a national level, the pain that accompanies 9/11 can’t be measured, but for a great many there was the added tragedy, two years later to the day, when actor John Ritter, while rehearsing a sequence for his series 8 Simples Rules (co-starring Kaley Cuoco),  suddenly took ill. He was rushed to the hospital where he died, not from, as he was initially diagnosed, by cardiac arrest, but, rather, through an aortic dissection. His death was shocking to family, friends, and fans, but in its aftermath we still have our memory of him — and the laughs he gave us — which is all captured in the new documentary, John Ritter: Behind Closed Doors, which debuts tonight on the Reelz channel. 

One of the people who had gotten to know John fairly well is Chris Mann, author of the 1998 book Come and Knock On Our Door: A Hers and Hers and His Guide to Three’s Company, which he is currently revising as well as penning a definitive biography of John. The loss of John, he feels, remains painful. “John felt a bit like everyone’s brother or best friend — or at least who we wished those people to be. His humor uplifted us, and his kindness inspired us.” 

The special is described by Reelz as follows: “As Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, John Ritter established himself as one of the most gifted comedians of a generation, launching a prolific career in television and movies that would make him one of America’s most beloved stars. But for a man so brilliant in comedy, it was the tragedy of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm that would cut his life short at just 54 years old. Through personal stories told by his closest friends and co-stars, including Suzanne Somers, Joyce DeWitt, Henry Winkler, Peter Bogdanovich, Jimmy Kimmel, and Kaley Cuoco, John Ritter: Behind Closed Doors reveals the generous spirit behind Ritter’s undeniable talent, his legacy of laughter, and his family’s determination to save lives by raising awareness of the condition that caused his death.”

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Three’s Company — and its story of a trio of roommates living together platonically while providing plenty of laughs through sexual innuendo and a constant stream of misunderstandings — turned John into a superstar, though stardom was something he was more or less prepared for. His father was actor/singer Tex Ritter, so showbiz had always been a part of his life.

“He was actually a face that people were pretty familiar with,” Chris explains to us in an exclusive interview, referring to the actor’s four years on The Waltons, co-starring in the Disney feature The Barefoot Executive, and making guest appearances on various shows. “But, because he grew up in showbiz with his dad being this huge western star, he was instilled with these sort of hearland values. He had been around the block, he lived it, he saw it, and how his dad handled it, so I think the success of Three’s Company excited him.” 

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What wasn’t so exciting was co-star Suzanne’s bid for even bigger stardom, putting herself front and center of the show’s publicity and essentially conveying to the media that if they were to focus on a star from the show, it should be her. Offers Chris, “John seemed to look past some other things that were happening but when her attitude became, and I’m quoting him here, ‘F you, I am Three’s Company,’ that’s when he drew the line.

“And the reason he got so angry,” he adds, “was because there was actually a lot of love on that show, and he came onto that set every week, by all accounts, and just exuded love, made guest stars feels welcome, people feel important, helped punch up some of the comedy bits for Joyce and Suzanne where they might have been lacking, and certainly afterwards with other co-stars. But my overall impression is that John was very grateful for the opportunity, and overall he looked back at it fondly, even though the media trashed the show.”

He also, as revealed in the documentary, came to make peace with Suzanne Somers and moved on from the acrimony between them. “I think Suzanne really loved John,” Chris observes. “Deep down, I think she feels significant regret about opportunities lost with him. She seems truly at a loss, though, when she says in the Reelz special that he started their final conversation by saying, ‘I forgive you.’ So I think her array of feelings about John and their relationship could fill a book.”

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But afterwards, as John moved on to shows like Three’s a Crowd (the ill-fated spin-off to Three’s Company), Hooperman, Hearts Afire, and 8 Simple Rules, not to mention various film and stage roles, he further cemented the kind of person that he was, which is what’s being celebrated in the Reelz documentary. It’s certainly what Chris is hoping to capture in his biography of John, which he feels will, through the various interviews he’s conducted, “explore the profound needs that drove John to be a brilliant force of laughter and humanity, on camera and off, as well as a demonstrably loving family man — despite the at times overwhelming inner pain he long kept from view.” 

John Ritter: Behind Closed Doors airs at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. tonight, Tuesday, Sept. 11, and again at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Monday Sept. 16.