The day after his wedding last October, John Ritter, the male star of ABC’s bawdy sexcom Three’s Company, showed up on the set in pajamas, robe and slippers and rehearsed in them all day. The message: This job is interfering with my honeymoon.
Ritter continues to suffer from a severe case of tranquil monogamy; he and new wife, actress Nancy Morgan, positively exude marital bliss. It has led him to such extravagant remarks as, “If ABC said ‘Goodbye’ and everybody else said ‘Hello, has-been,’ it would be totally fine with me as long as we had each other.”
There are scores of young women in Hollywood who will read those words with astonishment. Is this the same John Ritter who gathered all the rosebuds he could manage while avoiding commitment like a thorn? Indeed, his reputation as rogue male was well known until he met Nancy three years ago.
“I was in love with being in love,” Ritter, 29, admits. “I was the guy who always had 46 girlfriends. I would claim undying love until the question of the altar came up.” In fact, Nancy came along at a time he was feeling rotten about dumping one of the girlfriends. “I hated myself for hurting her. Nancy took my stinking, rotten, bloody hand, and I was amazed she could see a glint of goodness in me,” he says. “When Nancy’s eyes told me she loved being with me, I started liking myself. The blood was washed away and I was healed.”
Since meeting Nancy, Ritter admits he can “now look at women as human beings. Nancy is the first woman I can admit is smarter than I am and as strong.” Their union, he says, has also enabled him to “flirt my ass off” with Company co-stars Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt. “It doesn’t involve getting into bed. My relationship with those women is complete because they know I adore them and am attracted to them, and that I love Nancy. They love their own mates, so there isn’t any power struggle.”
When an agent, whom they shared, introduced Ritter to Nancy in March 1975, she was already a successful commercials actress outearning John five to one. (“Now it’s the other way around,” she observes.) Growing up in a close, Bible-reading family in Hinsdale, Ill., a comfortable Chicago suburb, Nancy was homecoming queen at Denison University in Ohio before moving to L.A. in 1973. (Her parents had settled there in 1970.) Her father is now an L.A. advertising executive; her mother part-owns the Coral Tree gift shop in Brentwood. Besides lead roles in Grand Theft Auto and Fraternity Row, Nancy appeared in 10 episodes of ABC’s late San Pedro Beach Bums (as Julie). She’s done more than 50 commercials, for everything from deodorant to Minnesota’s antirape program.
The year before she met John was a nightmare of medical trauma and bills from 11 doctors. After an auto accident caused permanent neck damage, she developed an ulcer from taking aspirin to ease the pain. A sudden and acute allergy to eye makeup made her lids swell shut every morning, and then she broke an arm while practicing hurdle jumps for a pantyhose commercial. “That was the most tragic year of my life,” Nancy, 28, recalls, “but it led to meeting John and all my happiness.”
At the time, the Burbank-born Ritter, a theater arts graduate of USC, was launching his career. He had compiled stage credits (from Hollywood to Edinburgh) but had only guested on TV—Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, Kojak and The Waltons, where he was a semiregular as the minister. John was still better known as country singer Tex Ritter’s boy. That didn’t impress Nancy, who had met celebs’ offspring before and found them “apologetic and uncomfortable.”
John, however, “did not seem to be worried that I would look at him as Tex’s son,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘How wonderful.'” On their first date Nancy spilled champagne on herself and dismissed it with a laugh. John says, “I was impressed that laughter was more important to her than her blouse.” But their decision to marry took more than two years because he told Nancy, “I can’t commit myself.” She never pressed the issue: “I was not terribly concerned. It was not one of our goals. At some point, I think he simply was ready. All of a sudden it was just perfect.”
Their Bel Air wedding was performed by the Rev. Bobs Watson, the minister-cum-actor who married Ron Howard and Nancy on screen in Grand Theft Auto. “It was the best day of our lives,” she sighs. “The rest,” adds John, with a grin (if not excessive taste), “is hysterectomy.”
“We have total happiness for each other’s career,” insists Nancy. “John is 90 percent responsible for my beginning to appreciate acting as an art, not a business.” Nonetheless, she avoids using the Ritter name to get jobs and admits, “I have had several offers I knew were meant to entice John.” She turned them down.
Ritter hardly needs the work. He seems to do more guest shots than the Muppets. In the last two weeks he appeared on Ringo Starr’s special, taped Fiesta ’78 with Somers and played a crippled athlete in an ABC movie, Leave Yesterday Behind. (Ritter’s older brother, Tom, 31, a Nashville law graduate who suffers from cerebral palsy, helped him understand the role. Their widowed mother, Dorothy, who is unofficial First Lady of the country music capital, has also been a national VP of the United Cerebral Palsy Association for eight years. “She’s an incredible warrior,” Ritter says fondly.)
A natural hambone, John is popular on the Three’s Company set. To relax the cast between takes, he has created an X-rated character, “the mad humper,” who goes around indecently molesting inanimate objects—”tables, telephones, furniture, even a pencil,” says friend Norman Fell, who plays Mr. Roper on the show. “John and I rid the atmosphere of tension just by being silly. When there are personal clashes on the set, John listens to everybody and brings peace. If anybody has it all, he does.”
This July the Ritters will move from a modest Benedict Canyon rental to a two-story English country-style house in Brentwood. Thrifty Nancy handles the finances (“I would be scattered to the winds by now if it weren’t for her,” John says) while he “is a hotshot with the vacuum,” she reveals. Non-cooks both, they breakfast on a blend of protein powder, milk and bananas and occasionally dine on a personal creation, “the hamburger thing”—patties stuffed with jack cheese, bacon bits, pickle relish, diced tomatoes and onions, with a dab of sour cream optional. They never fight but sometimes do “talk passionately.” They agree completely on autos—two BMWs, hers blue, his green. Their friends are high school and college chums, plus Fell and his wife, Doc (Tonight) Severinsen and Emily Marshall, and Ron (Happy Days) and Cheryl Howard.
“Nancy is a rock,” observes Howard. “She has a steady cut-through-nonsense attitude without being super-serious.” Ritter’s business manager and longtime friend, Bob Myman, adds, “After John was with Nancy for a while there was a noticeable settling in. He takes a lot of strength from her.”
An est graduate, John has inspired domestic role-playing games, to the point where Nancy has even regressed to infancy, murmuring baby talk in his arms. “We have our own characters that are private to us,” she explains, “little people who evolve out of what’s happening during the day.” John adds: “Sometimes we figuratively put on miner’s hats with little flashlights and explore inside Nancy and John. I can be a little boy with Nancy or I can be a father figure to her. She allows me room to be terrified and to be strong and creative.” Nancy says, “We expect to be together for the rest of our lives.”