ON THE AFTERNOON OF MAY 10, CLINT RITCHIE, the gruff, taciturn actor who for 14 years has played Clint Buchanan, the gruff, taciturn Texas-bred newspaper editor on ABC’s daytime soap One Life to Live, was toiling agreeably in his domain. Tall in the saddle of his 1948 John Deere tractor (“a classic piece of machinery,” he calls it), Ritchie was tilling a pasture on his 32-acre ranch in the piney Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California—savoring a few days away from the New York City studio where the soap is taped—when he spied what he took to be a six-inch tree stump in his path. Ritchie figured he could clear it, no problem. But the tractor, pulling a spike-tooth harrow, began climbing up the stump—which was actually 18 inches tall—and began listing right. Afraid it would overturn, Ritchie stood up to leap off. But just then the tractor righted itself, pitching him to the ground directly in its path. “I realized I was going to get run over,” Ritchie, 55, laconically recalls. On his belly, inches from the advancing 5,000-pound machine, he could do nothing but brace himself for the impact—first from the smaller front wheels, then from the slow, agonizing crush of the immense rear wheels. “It took forever,” says Ritchie. “I heard and felt bones breaking like toothpicks.” He knew the spike-tooth harrow was next. “So I got to my feet and it caught me, but I managed to throw it off, because I was right at the edge of it,” he says. “Tore up my arms a bit, but not terrible.”
Ritchie staggered several hundred feet before a neighbor came to his rescue and handed him the cellular phone from the actor’s own nearby pickup truck. In shock and agonizing pain, he managed to dial 911. The 12-minute ride to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley seemed an eternity. His right collarbone was broken, as were his right shoulder blade, all the ribs on his right side and several on his left. Worse than the pain, though, was the feeling of suffocation. Both of his lungs were punctured and deflated, and in the ambulance he gasped desperately—futilely, it seemed—for air.
“At one point I heard them say, ‘We’re losing him,’ ” recalls Ritchie. In the hospital parking lot, he passed out. When, several hours later, he came to, the man who prides himself on his rugged self-reliance was confused, hurting—and uncharacteristically frightened. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to ride this one,” he whispered to his fiancée, D.J. Sheppard, 42, who was at his bedside. Sheppard was weeping. “I don’t know either,” she said.
“Riding it,” as the veteran horseman put it, hasn’t been easy. For three months, excruciating pain and life-threatening medical complications hampered Ritchie’s recovery. Onscreen, the One Life characters speculated with deep concern about the fate of Clint Buchanan, whose near fatal injury in a plane crash was written into the script to explain his absence. And their anxiety didn’t end there. “Quite frankly, we didn’t know if he would live or die,” says One Life executive producer Linda Gottlieb.
And so last week, on Sept. 30, it was with relief and delight that the gang welcomed “Bucky,” as he is known on the set, back to the fictitious town of Llanview. “The whole writing team kept saying, ‘The character is getting better,’ ” says Gottlieb. “We were putting out all those good vibes—how could he not get better?”
In the melodrama that is soap opera, of course, triumph can be scripted; in real life, Gottlieb knew, the hoped-for happy ending wasn’t her call. For two weeks after the accident, Ritchie lay in his hospital bed, doped up on painkillers. Soon after his release, he checked back in with a dangerous infection on his back. Returning home again, he showed little improvement. He had no appetite, and in a month and a half his 6’1″ frame withered from 213 lbs. to 152. (He has since gained back 17 lbs.) As his broken bones mended, simple exercise was crucial for proper rehabilitation, but Ritchie was too weak even to walk.
Most troubling—and puzzling—to doctors was that Ritchie still had trouble breathing. Two months after the accident, one of his physicians discovered the problem: a pocket of infection behind Ritchie’s left lung. Left unchecked, it might have killed him. The actor underwent surgery and was soon sent home. A few days later, recalls Sheppard, a horse breeder, her fiancé announced he had a craving for tacos. “Thai’s when I knew he was going to be okay,” she says.
That is also when he began taking stock of what was happening around him. The bedroom in his five-room Happy Horse ranch house was filled with flowers and cards from his family, fans, friends and colleagues. The flow of warmth and encouragement did more than touch Ritchie—it left him dumbfounded. “I remember thinking. ‘My God, I must mean something to these people,’ ” he says.
But from day one, the One Life gang did more than send best wishes. They adamantly defended his turf. “We’ll do whatever you need,” Ritchie’s screen wife, Erika Slezak (Viki Buchanan), told Gottlieb, “bill please don’t have anyone else play his role.” Gottlieb had no intention of letting a stranger take Ritchie’s place, even temporarily. Instead, she called regularly to check on his progress and assured him that his job was waiting for him, even if he was confined to a wheelchair. “You don’t think about that kind of thing between employer and employee anymore,” says Ritchie, brushing his quarter horse gelding. Okie Dokie, at the ranch. “It was the kind of stuff you hear about happening 100 years ago, when people cared about people.”
Born in Grafton, N.Dak., the eldest son of a cowboy, Ritchie has always been a loner, says his sister, Darlys Patton, a housewife. “He keeps things pretty much to himself,” she says. That included his early ambitions. By the age of 7, he knew he wanted to be an actor, but Clint—voted “Handsome Harry” by his fellow students at Sunnyside High School in Washington State—was too shy to give it a shot. He moved to Hollywood in his early 20s, laboring in a gas station and a factory, but it took him two years to work up the nerve to take an acting class. He made his TV debut as a cavalry officer on The Wild, Wild West in 1965. “That got me back into horses,” says Ritchie, who began training them for other people at about the same time he was landing small parts in movies including Patton and Bandolero! In 1970 he auditioned out in L.A. for a New York-based television show without realizing it was a soap opera. Ritchie had been out riding and showed up to pick up the script wearing boots, spurs and a cowboy hat. “I was Clint Buchanan, but didn’t know,” he says with a chuckle.
Throughout his career, Ritchie had considered his colleagues to be only that: colleagues. “I don’t want to insult anybody,” he says, “but I thought we were being nice to each other because it made it easier to work together.” The accident, says Patton, has made her brother think again. “He’s aware of how close he came to dying.” she says, “and he knows he was given a second chance.” When he isn’t taping One Life in New York, Ritchie will be back at the ranch with his 30 horses, 20 cats, 6 dogs and, of course, Sheppard, a native Minnesotan and fellow equestrian whom he met 10 years ago and plans to wed next August. (Ritchie was very briefly married in his early 20s.) His brush with death, he vows, will make him a better Clint Ritchie. “I’m not going to spend nearly as much time thinking about people who do me wrong,” he says, “or haling. I’m just not going to waste the energy.”
MIKE SION in Nevada County, Calif.