September 18, 2003 10:20 AM

Reporting to the Burbank set of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter Sept. 11, John Ritter was bouncing with puppyish energy. After working out with a trainer at the gym, the man still best known as Three’s Company’s Jack Tripper arrived on the Disney lot at 11:30 a.m. Bumping into Howard Alonzo, an actor appearing on the show, Ritter impulsively gave him a bear hug and told him it was his daughter Stella’s 5th birthday. (It was also her first week at preschool, and the actor was getting a kick out of being her personal chauffeur.) “He was in a great mood,” says Alonzo. No one would have dreamed that the 54-year-old star’s heart would cease beating by the end of the day.

That afternoon, waking from his customary nap, Ritter spent time refining some comedy bits with one of the episode’s guest stars, longtime friend Henry Winkler, 57. “I took a long nap and I’m still tired,” Winkler recalls him saying. “I joked, ‘Yeah, you’re always tired.’ ” Then at about 4:15 the star’s tiredness turned to something worse. “I feel a little sick to my stomach,” Ritter told director James Widdoes. “He was sweating and didn’t look right,” says costar Katey Sagal. He left for his dressing room. “We thought it was the stomach flu,” Widdoes says. “I told him to go lie down.” Still worried, Sagal told the assistant director, “Go check on him.”

Ritter, stripped down to his underwear and T-shirt, was only growing sicker. He was perspiring heavily, vomiting and suffering chest pains. A studio doctor was summoned and urged him to go straight to the hospital, which happened to be across the street: Providence St. Joseph Medical Center (where Ritter had been born on Sept. 17, 1948). Shortly after 5, Ritter changed back into his clothes, got his wallet out of his black Cadillac sedan in the parking lot and was driven to the emergency room by an assistant director. As he was leaving, he cracked open the car door and told a crew member, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.” He smiled and was driven off.

The situation steadily, swiftly worsened: At 8:15 executive producer Flody Suarez called Widdoes and told him that the upset stomach was actually the tipoff to a heart problem. “Even then,” says Widdoes, “I thought, ‘Well, like so many of us in our 50s, we have to face it, fix it, change our lifestyle and move forward.’ ” But for Ritter it was already too late: Doctors would detect a tear in his heart’s main artery – a rare, often fatal, always tough-to-diagnose condition called aortic dissection. Surgeons operated on the star – even being wheeled into surgery, he cracked jokes – but to no avail. He died in the OR shortly after 10 p.m. “He went very quickly,” says 8 Simple Rules executive producer Tom Shadyac. In the hospital with him at the end were his second wife, actress Amy Yasbeck – who would turn 41 the next day – and Ritter’s son, actor Jason Ritter, 23, one of three children by his first wife, actress Nancy Morgan, 54. His other children would soon fly in from the East Coast, where he and Morgan, who remained close, had only the week before shepherded them off to college: son Tyler, 18, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and daughter Carly, 21, a senior at Vassar. For now, the family “is on autopilot,” says a friend. “So much to do.” His widow, whom he met on the set of the 1990 movie comedy Problem Child and wed on Sept. 18, 1999, “is strong because of Stella,” says Winkler. “She has to be there for Stella.”

The death devastated many in Hollywood, where Ritter’s wide-ranging career in comedy and drama had included sitcoms, a detective series (Hooperman) and character parts ranging from a minister on The Waltons to a client of Ally McBeal’s. “When I saw his picture on the TV screen with two dates on it,” says Markie Post, his costar on the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire (1992-95), “it was like a kick in the gut.” By all accounts, Ritter had been one of the most personable, easygoing stars around – thanks, perhaps, to the fact that he himself was the son of two modest, down-home stars: Tex Ritter, a B-Western personality and country singer who died of a heart attack in 1974 at age 68, and his wife, former actress Dorothy Fay, now 88, who became a fixture at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry as its official greeter. Ritter was the sort of guy who asked crew to wear name tags so he could get to know them; gave 8 Simple Rules daughter Kaley Cuoco fatherly advice on how to dress modestly (“Missy, you need to go change,” he told her when she showed up for work in a tank top); and raised millions for cerebral palsy research, a cause he was dedicated to for the sake of his sole sibling, Tom Ritter, 56, a lawyer, who was born with the condition. The brothers had tickets for a Dodgers game Sept. 13. “He and Tom loved baseball,” says a family friend.

Instead, on Sept. 15 he was laid to rest at L.A.’s Forest Lawn cemetery, with cabaret star Amanda McBroom singing “In My Life,” a song by his favorite band, the Beatles. “John was a truly, truly good man,” says Joyce DeWitt, 54, one of his costars in Three’s Company, the incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom (1977-84) about a girl-crazy bachelor and his two female roommates. She had last seen Ritter four months ago when they were each visiting New York. “The phone rang and it was John, and he goes, ‘Baby, I’ve got two dinners and four parties I’ve got to go to. You’re my date. I’m picking you up at 7:30.’ It was like when we were kids together.”

Suzanne Somers, 56, who left the series in a very public 1981 dustup because of her salary demands, last caught up with Ritter by phone a few months ago. Alienated from each other, they hadn’t become friendly again until a full decade later (Amy engineered a reconciliation after running into Somers at a premiere party in 1995). “If I hadn’t had resolution with John, this day would be unbearable,” says Somers. “I’ve cried all morning.”

There was both laughter and tears at an impromptu memorial Sept. 12 on the set of 8 Simple Rules. More than 100 cast and crew members gathered around the living-room set on which Ritter, with former Married . . . with Children star Sagal as his wife, had played Paul Hennessy, a sports columnist raising two daughters and a son. “It’s very hard” for the kids in the cast, says Sagal. “Young people gravitated to him.” Says Tom Shadyac: “We lost the head of our family today. We will somehow go on.” The question is how. Ritter, with his light charm and a gift for physical comedy, was the core of the show, which has been a solid hit on ABC’s underperforming prime time since premiering last year. (Jokes Ritter’s friend, Hearts Afire producer Harry Thomason: “John would get a kick out of the fact that he drove down (ABC parent company) Disney’s stock price Friday.”) With only three new episodes of the second season completed, the network will place the show on hiatus once those have aired, then bring it back at an undetermined date with Hennessy dead and his family coping with their grief.

This is an online excerpt of PEOPLE magazine’s cover package.

In some parts of the country, PEOPLE’s cover this week is devoted to a special tribute to Johnny Cash. Click here to recall the legendary star’s life.

– TOM GLIATTO
– LORENZO BENET, MARISA LAUDADIO, CYNTHIA WANG, ALEXIS CHIU, CARRIE BELL and MICHAEL FLEEMAN in Los Angeles and SANDRA SOBIERAJ in Washington, D.C.

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