John Ritter, the Emmy-award winning star who became a household name playing bumbling wannabe-Casanova Jack Tripper on ’70s TV hit Three’s Company, died suddenly from an arterial problem, according to published reports. He was 54.
Ritter collapsed Thursday while on the set of his ABC comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. He was taken to Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank, Calif., but surgeons there were unable to save him. He died from a “dissection of the aorta,” a previously undetected flaw in the main artery from the heart, according to his publicists.
“All of us at ABC, Touchstone Television and the Walt Disney Company are shocked and heartbroken at the terrible news of John’s passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and children at this very difficult time,” ABC said in a statement.
“It’s just stunning, unbelievable,” Susan Wilcox, his assistant of 22 years, told the Associated Press. “Everybody loved John Ritter. Everybody loved working with him. … Whatever set he was working on, he made it a very fun place.”
Ritter has been a familiar face to TV audiences since starring on Three’s Company, which has endured over the past two decades in syndication. His role on that show – as a bachelor who shares an apartment with two young single women, considered risque when it first aired – brought Ritter fame as well as Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
He has worked consistently since Three’s Company was canceled in 1984, starring in more than 25 TV movies and on series such as Hooperman in the late 1980s and Hearts Afire in the early 1990s. He also appeared on the big screen in movies such as 1996’s Oscar-winning Sling Blade and 2002’s Tadpole, and performed on Broadway in Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party, AP noted. He described his movie career as “peaks and valleys” and his TV work as “a big mountain” to PEOPLE in 2002. The younger of musician Tex Ritter and actress Dorothy Fay’s two sons, John Ritter was raised in Los Angeles. He graduated from Hollywood High School and earned a drama degree from the University of Southern California in 1971. “I was the class clown, but I was also student body president in high school,” Ritter told AP in a 1992 interview. “I had my serious side – I idolized Bobby Kennedy, he was my role model. But so was Jerry Lewis.”
A stint in regional theater focused his career path: “I remember thinking, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he told PEOPLE. After playing guest roles on shows such as The Waltons, he landed Three’s Company in 1977.
In the past few years, Ritter appeared on shows such as Felicity, Scrubs and Ally McBeal before taking on the starring role in 8 Simple Rules. “John keeps everyone laughing,” costar Katey Sagal told PEOPLE. “He’s paternal, but he’s also a cool guy. Just by being at ease, he puts us at ease. He doesn’t have any of that elitist energy.”
Ritter met his wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, on the set of the 1990 movie comedy Problem Child, and the two began dating in 1994, about a year after Ritter separated from his first wife, Nancy Morgan. Ritter and Yasbeck wed in Ohio in September 1999, a week after their daughter, Stella, was born. “There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about him,” Yasbeck told PEOPLE last year. “He’s very idealistic. His philosophy of life is, if we treat each other’s children like they’re our own, the whole thing will work.”
Ritter is survived by Yasbeck and their daughter, Stella; his three children from his first marriage, Jason, Carly and Tyler; and a brother, Tom.
Pick up the Sept. 29 issue of PEOPLE for more on John Ritter’s life.