On the morning of September 12, 2003, I got up to help get the boys off to school. Chris was a junior, Vince an 8th grader. Like every day, I went back and forth a few times trying to rouse them from that deep teenage-boy sleep, and during the moments in between, I sat down at the computer, signed on, and waited for five minutes of pre-broadband eternity for the home page to pop up on the screen. On most days, the MSNBC site would feature whatever happened overnight in Washington or some foreign capital. That unforgettable morning delivered a double whammy though: not one celebrity death, but two. Johnny Cash and John Ritter. Cash’s death, while very sad, was not terribly unexpected. He was in his 70s, and had been quite ill for a number of years. But John Ritter? He wasn’t even 55. He was still active and vibrant. He was starring in the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules,” which seemed headed for a long run. Then suddenly, shockingly, he was gone.
He had been working on the second season’s fourth episode, and reportedly did not feel well that day. He was taken to a nearby hospital and died of an aortic dissection, described as an abnormal separation of tissues within the walls of the aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The weakened blood vessel may burst, which usually results in death if not treated immediately. Evidently that’s what happened.
Occasionally a TV star becomes ill, or is involved in an accident, which leads us to wonder, “What would happen to (name a hit show) if (name a big star) died suddenly? It hasn’t happened often. Freddie Prinze of “Chico and the Man” committed suicide in 1977, and the show couldn’t recover without its beloved title character. In the original “Dallas,” the family patriarch “Jock Ewing,” (Jim Davis) died. In the 2012 update, son “JR” Larry Hagman died. In both cases, the show went on, with tributes and new plot lines about the deceased stars. Same with Tony Soprano’s mother (played by Nancy Marchand), who was a major figure in the early years of HBO’s “The Sopranos.” In the upcoming season, “Glee” will deal with the recent death of young star Cory Monteith. Other supporting cast members and soap stars have died during the production of their series, but few hit us as hard as the death of John Ritter.