Friday, September 12, 2003

John Gone; Cash Cashed Out

Poor John never knew what hit him...

John Ritter died today on the set of his half-decent new television show, of a hole in the aorta he didn't know he had. One hopes that he'll be remembered for his more-recent role in Slingblade, and that excellent turn as Sigourney Weaver's warmly eccentric anti-father husband in last year's Sundance favorite Tadpole. But despite a recent glimmering of (who'da thunk it) real talent in his late middle age, it seems inevitable that his legacy will never make it out from the shadow of That Seventies Show (no, the other one, with Joyce DeWitt and Barney Fife).

And that's a shame, really, because in the end, John Ritter was seriously underrated.

Ritter's recently evolved almost-seriousness suited him, and suited us. Once he outgrew the melodrama, his characters were realistic and engaging, cheerful and almost-self-convincingly mature on the surface, but childlike, impish around the eyes. The beard mellowed him, masking him in just the right amount of adulthood to take on the paternal role. Poor guy; after decades of suckiness, he was just coming into his own on the big screen.

But, even putting his recent seriousness aside, we should work hard to remember Ritter for what he occasionally did best. His comedy -- at which Ritter made his career and never looked back until late middle age -- wasn't always overdone; when he got it right, it was right. His turn in the now-obscure direct-from-broadway minimalist play-within-a-play Noises Off, shows a comic actor with the impeccable timing and self-awareness to hold his own and parry wit with a stellar cast of surrounding comedic genius, including Christopher Reeve, that girl from Airplane who looks like the girl that married Tom Hanks but isn't, and Michael Caine. And although the rest of the movie is worthless, that "glow in the dark condom swordfight scene" in Skin Deep (1989) is a defining moment in nobrow comedy, one for which, according to this review, the movie is still banned in Korea and most of Scandinavia.

Even though he'll largely be remembered as the not-after-all-gay chef sharing digs with the down-to-earth brunette and the typical blonde, I guess the legacy could have been a heck of lot worse, though. Remember Problem Child? That "sucked into the TV" movie with two kids and Pam Dawber? Not to mention that Three's Company spinoff, and that horrible six-hour made-for-TV miniseries of Stephen King's It with Harry Anderson and a bunch of other never-heard-of-agains.

Sorrowfully, though, it's a sure thing he wont't be remembered for his best work. And this is no unusual phenomenon in the world of fame: serious actors are remembered for their successes, and comedic actors are remembered for thier ilures. But the world in its own way is just, or at least consistent. It is no small comfort to remember that long after Rushmore's a long-forgotten entry in cinematic history books, Bill Murray will be spending his days living out the painful burden that is Peter Venkman, while Williams' Garp will have been forgotten for his Doubtfire. It should go without saying that The Cable Guy will become a cult favorite, although it remains to be seen if there is more to Carrey than Truman.

* * *

Johnny Cash died today too, at 72, just a few months after second (third?) wife June Carter. He'll probably be remembered for his best work, but to be honest, his more recent forays into the modern pop music catalog totally transformed what had been entirely excellent songs and made them even more excellent; one also hopes that they, too, will rightfully linger in the popular imagination, 'cause how can you not love Johnny Cash reinterpreting Depeche Mode and Bono, in ways only he can?

Of course, what with Warren Zevon's death Monday, there's your belly-up trifecta for the week. RIP, guys. Hope there's decent beer, wherever you end up.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:15 PM |

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