Amy Yasbeck Interview: 'With Love and Laughter, John Ritter,' a Story of Happiness and Heartbreak
With Love and Laughter, John Ritter, is actress Amy Yasbeck’s powerful memoir about surviving the overwhelming loss of her husband from an undiagnosed aortic dissection at the age of 54. She shares her most enduring memories of her life with the comedian who was adored for finding humor in everyday encounters, never failing to energize and entertain everyone around him.
Ritter was one of America’s most popular and beloved film and television actors most fondly remembered as Jack Tripper on the sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) and as Paul Hennessy on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter (2002-2005) also on ABC. The actor passed away on September 11, 2003, and Katey Sagal took over the show’s starring position for the rest of the series’ run.
“I just started writing almost like little headlines, one word or two words to jog my memory, on index cards, napkins, or just saying it into my cell phone until I had pages and pages of stuff. You know how you don’t want stuff to slip away?”
Yasbeck’s television appearances include Wings, That’s So Raven, Life on a Stick, Just Shoot Me, Diagnosis: Murder, Quantum Leap, Designing Women, Matlock, Murphy Brown, Days of Our Lives, and Hot in Cleveland with film work including House II: The Second Story, Pretty Woman, Problem Child, Problem Child 2, The Nutt House, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Since the time of her husband’s untimely death, Yasbeck has devoted herself to promoting awareness of this devastating disease. She has established the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic health to provide medical, scientific and lay communities an opportunity to explore their common goals. Along with the Thoracic Aortic Disease Coalition, Yasbeck has also established Ritter Rules, a set of life-saving reminders to recognize, treat, and prevent thoracic aortic dissection.
Yasbeck and Ritter’s daughter, Stella, was born on September 11, 1998, five years to the day before her dad died.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Amy, thanks for taking the time to speak to me.
Amy Yasbeck: Sure. Where are you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Alabama.
Amy Yasbeck: I have to ask how’s the weather?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s cold, but that’s all relative depending on where you are (laughs). We did have a warm up today of 50 degrees.
Amy Yasbeck: I know it’s relative because I’m from Cincinnati. I sat through a Bengals game once and there were “snot cicles” hanging off my dad’s nose (laughs). I remember looking at my dad. He was shaking so hard and I’m like, “Do we really love football that much?” Oh my goodness! Tell me about Smashing Interviews. I love that name. What a great name!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, we ran a news magazine for a few years and in addition to the articles, interviews were featured. People seemed to love the interviews so much that we decided to start an interview magazine.
Amy Yasbeck: I do too. If somebody is asking the right questions, there’s nothing more fascinating. It’s almost like listening in on somebody’s conversation at the next table.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes and you never know sometimes where the conversation will go (laughs). Amy, the book, With Love and Laughter, John Ritter, is a great read!
Amy Yasbeck: I like that. You start with a statement and not a question. That’s a good one. I’m on board. You had me at great read (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But before we discuss the book, did you hear that James Franco debuted his video, Three’s Company: The Drama, at Sundance?
Amy Yasbeck: Not only did I hear about it, but my publicist out of New York was at Sundance. She knows about my crush on James Franco and I’m like, “If you see him you tell him that I may have the actual script.” He did it from an episode of Three’s Company, right?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From what I understand he actually got permission to do the first three episodes of Three’s Company.
Amy Yasbeck: Well, I don’t know that he got permission, but that’s okay. I don’t care. That wasn’t on my watch. I was watching those on TV and was a kid when the first three episodes were on. I liked Jack Tripper as much as anybody (laughs). I’ve got so many of the Three’s Company scripts that John wrote on and stuff … I’d love to give him a little something if you know what I mean (laughs).
I’m real excited about that because John was so funny when he would talk about Three’s Company. As silly and goofy and simple a show as it was sometimes those are the ones that are the most universal. Everybody could relate to those situations. People would come up to him and say, “I moved here from Bangladesh 25 years ago and I learned English by watching Three’s Company.” John would go, “Really?”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Three’s Company was a favorite show of mine.
Amy Yasbeck: Awesome. I’m so glad you liked the book. You’re exactly who I wrote it for, somebody that gets it that John was this good guy and always reliable. You knew when you saw him he was going to make you smile unless he was playing a real bastard then I would smile because I’d know the truth. He was a good actor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It has been more than seven years since his death. When and how did you know it was time to write about your life with John?
Amy Yasbeck: It’s interesting because when John passed away … sorry, deep breath. When John passed away, Stella had just turned five that day. I know from losing my dad when I was 19 there’s that thing of remembering something that you hadn’t remembered for a long time. You know what I mean? It’s almost like you stumbled over a little treasure box or something. There were so many stories about John that I did not want to lose to my memory that could only get worse (laughs). But I wasn’t ready to … it was almost too much of a challenge to sit and write them down or tell Stella the whole story.
I just started writing almost like little headlines, one word or two words to jog my memory, on index cards, napkins, or just saying it into my cell phone until I had pages and pages of stuff. You know how you don’t want stuff to slip away? I’m a terrible scrapbooker and all of those other things but I have a kick ass memory. Sometimes it takes one word or a song or the smell of a candle to prompt a whole story, so I did that for me almost to cue myself.
When I started working with my day job, raising awareness of aortic dissection, I just kept thinking, “How do I get this information out there?” These people were saying, “Hey, I’ve got the same thing that John died of but I was saved.” They felt an extra connection to John and I thought about how I could talk to everybody at once and just tell them that John would have been so sad to have been missing all of this with all of his fans and family, but he loved stories and would want it to go on.
About three years ago I was telling a couple of the stories at a lunch meeting with Jen Bergstrom from Simon & Schuster. We were laughing and crying and she was writing things down on her napkin so it just turned into this thing. I decided I didn’t want to do it with a ghostwriter which I know many actors do because they’re used to being interviewed, but I wanted to interview myself.
All of those cues I had written down were sort of like questions so I wrote it as kind of a storyteller. It’s very fully in my voice. I’ve gotten busted a couple of times because of that with people saying, “That’s not very professional.” I say that the grammar is fine. It’s way better than most people. I’m fine. Let me write as a person. That didn’t take you out of the book … that it sounded like a person talking, did it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): No, actually I found it more personable and even more powerful.
Amy Yasbeck: I just couldn’t fake it. I started the journey, which, as you can imagine, was tricky on many levels. It’s hard to arrange those thoughts that are so evocative because they remind you of a bunch of things. Sometimes I’d be “typing” with my two fingers and then I’d be lying on my office floor to take stock. I’d think, “Wow, this means he’s really gone if I’m writing this.” It hits you. It took me a long time to write it because of that and because I have wild ADD.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, that certainly didn’t help!
Amy Yasbeck: No, that did not help someone who’s trying to organize her thoughts (laughs). But I did it and I’m very proud of it! I would ask Stella to read parts of it. I would never put anything down that she felt like was a personal story for just her. I’d say, “Do you think it’s okay to say this?” She’d sometimes say, “I think that’s just between me and dad.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, some things needed to remain private within the family. I was reading about aortic dissection and found that Lucille Ball also died from the condition.
Amy Yasbeck: She did, but I’m not clear if she had an abdominal aneurysm or thoracic aneurysm. It does differentiate there. When the book comes out in paperback, I’m going to have to put a little something extra in there because now there’s the John Ritter Research Program at the UT Health Science Center in Houston which has 600 families in a genetic study. When Richard Holbrooke, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died last December of an aortic dissection, much of the info that was in the newspapers was about abdominal aneurysm, which is a different everything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Right. Lucille Ball also had heart surgery and I believe she received an aorta from a donor. John did not have surgery, did he?
Amy Yasbeck: Oh no no no no no no no. He wasn’t even diagnosed until he was …
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He was diagnosed incorrectly.
Amy Yasbeck: That’s exactly right. He was diagnosed as a heart attack. Then you do all of the completely wrong things. The blood thinner for a tear is the opposite of a blockage in your heart … not even your heart, but your aorta. It’s a very horrible mistake, but it’s a common one that’s becoming less common now.
Unless you’re in the medial field and then even … don’t get me started. If you and I (God forbid) were accompanying someone who was clutching their chest in the hospital and saying that it felt like a rip or tear, make sure they check for the “John Ritter thing.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): If you’re diagnosed correctly, there is a good chance of recovery?
Amy Yasbeck: Oh, yes, if you’re diagnosed with the aneurysm which happens first. That’s what happened to my brother-in-law (John’s brother) Tommy because he knew there was a genetic connection.
You’re way more predisposed, way more than breast cancer even, possibly more than 20%. Dianna Milewicz, the geneticist, has discovered two more genes. Six different genes when mutated can cause this. You can test your family to rule in and rule out then you can do a yearly thing and pay closer attention to it. It’s a blessing to know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So John’s death probably saved his brother’s life. Was this the same thing that happened to journalist Tim Russert?
Amy Yasbeck: It is not. I did Larry King with Dr. Oz at the time that Tim Russert passed away, but it was just basically about that sudden cardiovascular event you could not have seen coming. His was cardio and the aortic stuff is vascular. Good question though. It is probably the exact same thing that happened to John’s dad, actor Tex Ritter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s a shame that information was not known at the time of Tex Ritter’s death. Of course, medical science had not advanced that far.
Amy Yasbeck: Growing up in our era, you remember hearing people dying of massive heart attacks? They’d clutch their chests and die. Nobody did an autopsy. They weren’t under a doctor’s care and sometimes they were 40 or 50 years old.
I imagine sometimes it was a chest thing, but a really good percentage of those were aortic aneurysms dissecting. It’s not as rare as people thought. There’s so much more scanning now and echocardiograms and so many different kinds of imaging that sometimes they can catch it, watch it, and fix it before it kills. Thank God.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, thank God. Amy, how do you and Stella handle the month of September?
Amy Yasbeck: We both drink heavily (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): John died on September 11, which is also Stella’s birthday, the day before your birthday, a few days before your wedding anniversary …
Amy Yasbeck: Yeah, but I’m 48 and don’t have birthdays anymore (laughs). Also John’s birthday was September 17, my dad’s birthday was September 13, yep, it gets worse.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it coincidental that you released your book in the month of September?
Amy Yasbeck: That was whatever the opposite of serendipity is. The good thing about when the book came out was that the John Ritter Research Program officially started last September. So many families got into the program. As painful as it was to come out in September it was helpful in the fact that was also when the research program kicked off. But, yeah, let’s face it. September is sticky. It’s also when school starts back up. But, it was Stella’s birthday before it was the day that her dad died. In 2001 that day was a total earth-shattering day of mourning’s and here’s our little girl turning three on the same day that happened.
John never said his philosophies like they were philosophies. He said them just like options or “what if we thought about it like this.” It was just like proof that beautiful things and horrible things happen on the same day and they always will. It’s up to you to hold it how you hold it and not have the world dictate it. I’ve had to do that. September is the proof of that.
For me, as a kid growing up, every time I’d say, “in September,” my brothers and sisters would roll their eyes and laugh because for my dad September was like a brand new year. That’s when your resolutions would happen. Maybe it was because there’s a week of Yasbeck birthdays in the month. The only day we didn’t have a birthday was always September 11 so when Stella was born on that day my family rejoiced.
September to us meant we were going to reassess and go forward and check ourselves. We weren’t Jewish but the Jewish Holy Days of reflection and remembrance are in September. We didn’t know that. That works for me. I get that. We all turned a year older, school starts, and things are new. September has become its own kind of month, where it’s okay to feel off balance even though days of remembrance and joy are happening.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Amy, has there been any interest in turning the book into a film?
Amy Yasbeck: No, but I wonder what Marcia Cross is doing (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now that’s perfect casting! What are you working on now?
Amy Yasbeck: I’m writing two screenplays just because I love writing and storytelling.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you acting also?
Amy Yasbeck: I am. It’s what we call pilot season out here which means I have to file my nails, make sure I have my roots covered and my push up bra and high heels on so that I can go out there and try to get a job … be funny and then fall off of said heels, right?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Right (laughs). I’d love to see you make a return visit to Hot in Cleveland.
Amy Yasbeck: I can’t tell you how much I loved that! Oh my God, how much do I love TV land anyway? Stella and I sit there and watch those old shows.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love it when they have Three’s Company marathons.
Amy Yasbeck: Believe me, so do we.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet Betty White is something else!
Amy Yasbeck: Oh my goodness she was such a doll with Stella when I came in! She knew John and I had met Betty before. I said, “Stella, I’m going to introduce you to somebody.” Stella knows Betty from Saturday Night Live which is hilarious! When I introduced her to Stella (they’re about the same height), she took my daughter by the hand and walked off to a corner.
Betty was just talking to her and doing that mom/grandma thing of putting her hair behind her ears. You know how moms always do that if their kid’s hair is sticking out. Anyway, she just talked to her about John. It was just the most adorable thing. Betty held her hand the whole time she was there. I just want to cry right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She’s everyone’s grandma.
Amy Yasbeck: In that way that you want your grandma to be sassy, too. She can swear like a sailor just like I can, but tried not to do during this interview. Oh yeah, Betty is something.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know they have you on a tight schedule today, so this is my last question. Do you have a favorite chapter in the book?
Amy Yasbeck: When I got close to the end of the book I was writing from the heart the chapter called “From the Heart” which is about the aorta which is what comes from your heart, and it was all kind of stacking up. I said, “This book is kind of an entertaining, happy, sad, bittersweet delivery system for Chapter 24 which could really save your life. It’s kind of like a peanut M&M.”
You know how you trick yourself when your kids are asking for something on an airplane? I’d always get peanut M&Ms because it keeps you in your seat, the shiny outside candy coatings are like pictures in a book that are kind of interesting, and the chocolate kind of sweetness is like all of the stories about John. Then there’s that peanut in the middle and it’s like the protein that will keep you alive. That’s Chapter 24. It’s got a little something for everybody. You won’t even know it but it’s good for you to read it.
© 2011 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.