WEB EXCLUSIVE: Ritter feeling ‘Happy’ despite loss of father, ‘Joan of Arcadia’

Andrew Hampp

Jason Ritter may have experienced a few hardships in the last few years of his life — the loss of his famous father, John (“Three’s Company”), the cancellation of his beloved CBS series “Joan of Arcadia” — but in his latest film, he receives a much-deserved Happy Ending.

In Don Roos’ Happy Endings, Ritter plays Otis, a closeted gay son of a wealthy L.A. businessman played by Tom Arnold. Ritter shines in one of his showiest big-screen roles to date. He makes Otis equal parts sympathetic and complex, at one point sleeping with the female lead singer of his garage band (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in an attempt to prove to himself and his father that he’s heterosexual.

Despite his character’s sexuality, Ritter said it wasn’t too hard for him to relate to Otis.

“There’s just a lot about him that I understood,” he said in a phone interview. “One of the things I really appreciated about this character was that he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. He knows that he’s not like his friends and he knows he’s not like his dad. He doesn’t really know what else he could be. He can’t really figure it out.”

Ritter said he found Otis’s lack of self-identity to be a pretty universal struggle.

“I think, for the most part, we all go around trying to be as confident as possible and show everyone we’ve got our stuff together.

“But for the most part, everyone somewhere is still a little freaked out, a little scared. One of the things I liked about Otis is you can just see that. It’s so obvious that he doesn’t know what he’s doing that it endears you to the character because there’s something about it that’s so common, and because he’s not good at covering it up.”

Ritter himself copped to not always meeting the standards of the masculine ideal, particularly in comparison to his Endings co-star Tom Arnold, host of ESPN’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” and his late father, John, who originally wanted to be a professional baseball player before an eye injury forced him into his eventual career as an actor.

“I definitely understand that feeling of seeing a copy of Maxim at someone’s house and thinking, ‘These are all the things I’m supposed to like, and I think I only like two of the three.’

“My brother and my dad always connected about sports. I sucked and (my brother) was good. My dad and I had a connection with acting. Father-son relationships are so complicated. Growing up, you see this man who is sometimes good, sometimes bad. They have places in this world and you’ve done nothing. You either learn from the example or the anti-example.”

Speaking of parents, imdb.com recently pointed out that Ritter has played the son of both parts of the famous acting couple Ted Danson (in 1999’s Mumford) and Mary Steenburgen (on “Joan of Arcadia”) in two separate projects, a feat he declared as the “Danson-Steenburgen grand slam,” having also acted with Danson’s daughter Kate in a short film at New York University film school.

Ritter recently said his official good-bye to his project with Steenburgen, CBS’s “Joan of Arcadia,” after rumors that fan petitions might help keep the canceled series alive.

“I was getting my hopes up again, going, ‘Oh yes, this is gonna be amazing! A fan’s revolution! They’ll have to listen!’

“But I recently talked to Amber (Tamblyn, who played Joan), who went to the Sony lot for something completely unrelated, and she saw them ripping apart our set. That was kinda the final nail in the coffin.”

Although Ritter said he would do “Joan” for another network “in a second,” he will always treasure the times he had with the show.

“It was a very good run,” he said. “We’re all really proud of it. We made friends for life. We became like a real family on that show. We all can look back at it and say we did something that was good and touched a lot of people … Right now, I’m just kinda following the flow; I’m just so hurt by the breakup.”

The actor said it will be hard for another TV show to top “Joan of Arcadia” in his book, but he would never rule out making a return to series television.

As for other goals, Ritter is up for any challenge an acting role has in store for him.

“One of my goals is to keep trying my best to change it up a little bit and play different characters,” he said. “I want to stay away from being pigeonholed, as being only able to play one thing. I never wanna say, ‘Oh, I know how to do this’ and just do my little shtick and go home. I hope to be terrified.”

Contact Pop Arts editor Andrew Hampp at [email protected].