Pop Speaking could not hope to get off to 2014 on a better footing.
This post is very very special to me. Chris Mann is not only one of the top authorities on pop culture of today, he’s the definitive voice on Three’s Company, the male star of which, John Ritter, inspired this blog. He has been kind enough to spend a lot of time and effort sending me some invaluable information as well as three previously unpublished photographs.
Chris Mann is the author of “Come and Knock on Our Door“ and consulting producer of NBC’s 2003 hit telefilm“Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Three’s Company’ “. I’m very humbled and grateful that he has put so much time and effort into giving me such wonderful answers to my in depth and probably quite searching questions.
Chris, you’ve been in love with Three’s Company for a long time, for longer than I have. How did you fall in love with the show?
Thank you, Gaynor, for this opportunity to share with readers of your fun and insightful new blog. It’s so cool to know that “Three’s Company” has moved you so meaningfully — and that its magical reach still extends to the other side of the planet, no less! Like you, I started watching when I was a young child, primarily because of the late, great John Ritter.
His physical comedy and his timing were sublime, and his clownish spirit and “good-guy” energy really touched my heart. I was the class clown growing up (and I worked very hard to bring comic relief to my family as well), so Jack Tripper, as embodied and expressed by John, deeply resonated with me. Joyce DeWitt also particularly moved me as a spirited performer; she and John made beautiful music together as a comedy team.
John and Joyce, as the two constants on the show from episode one, especially felt to me as a kid like two friends, or maybe two family members, that I could always rely on to help me escape my so-not-carefree childhood — if only for 30 minutes a day. Comedy and laughter can help us transcend our circumstances and lighten our lives, and for me “Three’s Company” — wacky misunderstandings, mistaken identities, wild sexual innuendos/double entendres, hilarious pratfalls, zany door slammings and all — was like a tonic that helped me survive some very unfunny times. As I write this, I completely realize how hysterical it sounds to portray a sitcom farce as a deliverer of salvation, but, hey, did I mention I watched it “religiously”? ; )
Tell us about how the show impacted you growing up. In South Africa, while we enjoyed the show, America was a far away world then and it was always a little separate and more glamourous than what we were living day to day. Today, with the global village, I find that I and my kids relate to the characters on a real level. Did you find growing up that you related to the stars?
I love the global village concept, Gaynor. Long before the Internet and social media put everyone on “the same page,” television helped us feel connected to a world beyond our own. As a “wacky,” often misunderstood kid growing up in rural Oklahoma — the proverbial “Heartland” and/or Bible Belt of America — watching “Three’s Company” and its cast of characters opened the door in my imagination to what I dreamed life would be like as a grown-up, wacky, misunderstood kid in the faraway land of liberated Southern California.
Athleticism and otherwise archetypal “jock” attributes were, for boys, revered seemingly above all else in my small-town school district (and this is probably a universal truth) — but, athletically and socially speaking, I had two left feet and seventeen thumbs. In the world of “Three’s Company,” however, having two left feet and otherwise being clumsy and incongruous were comedic assets that elicited laughter, joy and, for the talent behind the show, fulfillment, empowerment and success. I mean, John Ritter made physical and social awkwardness an Emmy-winning, laugh-out-loud art form! And the other characters were all frustrated misfits, too, who reacted to uncomfortable and seemingly dire situations with comic hysteria and physical and verbal “tripping.”
In this regard, and given the heart that each of these characters had at his or her core, they were all quite “real” to a kid who, in order to get through the day, simply had to see and act out the comedy in things. (The broadly-drawn sides to these farcical characters that weren’t so real were nonetheless relatable to me, as I often turned “serious stuff” into subversive and/or absurd humor to level the playing field and make reality a bit more fanciful and palpable.)
So, in a weird way, “Three’s Company” and its stars — many of whom, especially John, acted silly in interviews, on “Family Feud” and in other public appearances — made me feel more, well … normal. John Ritter as Jack Tripper validated me as a kid! Because of his persona and popularity as a sort of antidote to the rough-and-tumble Ryan O’Neal and Burt Reynolds macho types, I think misfit, self-deprecating, anything-for-a-laugh kids like me were often seen in a different light in the late ’70s and ’80s. My peers knew how much I idolized John and sort of emulated Jack Tripper, so I kind of benefitted merely by as-seen-on-TV association.
This really ticked off one jerk, er, jock who used to give me grief all the time. I remember one day on the school bus, he was flustered that I was successfully using humor to deflect his crap, so he desperately came up with this “zinger”: “Oh, what are you gonna do? Go home and watch ‘Three’s Company’?” I let him have his “moment” as I plotted getting the heck out of Dodge. My immediate goals were to become class valedictorian and get a full ride to The University of Tulsa to prepare me for my move to California — all of which I did, thank God. Then, about ten years later, when I published the book and got a consulting producer credit on the NBC TV movie, I momentarily recalled his unwittingly emboldening taunts and those of a few of his ilk, and thought, “Who’s laughing now?!?” (I probably included an expletive at the end of that question, if only for comic effect. ; )
What is it about Three’s Company that is so compelling?
It just has always epitomized the pure, unadulterated energy of fun and funny, as channeled through characters and actors that are familial and familiar. As a kid, for a half hour each day it took me to a place that helped sustain me the other 23 and a half hours of the day. As an adult, it makes me a feel young at heart and reconnects me with the passion that propelled me to pursue my dreams and transform my reality. Sounds silly — like, there’s no conceivable way “Three’s Company” can be that deep! — but it’s true.
Do you have any favourites in the stars?
I adored them all and am so grateful to each of them, to be quite honest. John opened so many doors for me by responding to a fan letter and “Three’s Company” fanzine I published during the summer of my freshman year as a journalism major at TU. He gave me an incredibly candid phone interview shortly thereafter and told me he would interview for a book if, as I indicated in my letter was my dream to do so, I ended up writing one. He changed my life forever, and I will never forget his generosity, support and ongoing inspiration. Joyce opened up a few years later and was truly instrumental in giving the book — as she did the show itself — so much of its heart and soul. She’s still my friend, and I always marvel at her spirituality and gratitude for the love folks still have across the globe for the show.
Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were also special people whom I got to know a bit in their final years.Let’s just say their chemistry and banter were real! Norman was naturally very funny, and Audra especially touched me. She reminded me of my beloved grandma, who was very ill and going through chemo while I was writing the book. When Audra suddenly died before the book was published — and about a year before my grandma lost her battle with cancer — I took it very hard. Not near as hard as I did when John suddenly passed, but hard enough that I called Joyce to commiserate and just broke down.
As much as I loved the original ensemble, “Three’s Company” especially brightened my world and made me laugh from the core of my being during the Priscilla Barnes years. Though the media has always been obsessed with the original trio, Priscilla, in my opinion, knocked it out of the park as an actress and brought just the right level of heartfelt, zany chemistry to the trio. Even though she’s stated her years on the show were not happy ones (given her dealings with one producer in particular), I hope she knows and feels how much she’s appreciated for adding light and laughter to the lives of viewers. At the risk of sounding hokier than the hokiest hokey-man — and, to quote, Mr. Furley, oh, what the hell — Jack, Janet and Terri had a very special place in my heart.
And while the Ropers were brilliant, Don Knotts as Mr. Furley was and will
forever be riotously, fall-down funny. Dear God, is that man hilarious! Add Richard Kline — like John, a really great and talented guy with spot-on comic timing and a mean ability to comically cross-dress — to the mix, and you’ve got the perfect farce comedy ensemble. And please let me mention Jenilee Harrison and Ann Wedgeworth, too. Though their tenures with the show were shorter, their comic contributions were very significant, especially given the pressures they faced in essentially replacing Suzanne and Audra, respectively.Ann Wedgeworth spent several minutes in the bathroom fixing her hair at the sorta-Jacks-Bistro-esque restaurant Chez Nous when I asked for a photo with her after our chat. (She emerged looking like a Lana-esque knockout.)
As a writer you have the ability to tweak the golden thread of humanity which runs through generations, continents, hearts and souls. This was a concept that actor John Ritter believed in – that intrinsically we are all connected and that as a performer he could make an impression on souls. I believe that somewhere herein lies the solution to many of the world’s problems and ask most people I interview about this. What are your thoughts on this golden thread? Do you want to shape the present and leave something for the future?
What a wonderful question! I’m so glad you asked this. I believe John Ritter nailed it with his eloquent statement about “the golden thread of humanity” — that he wanted to be remembered “just as a guy who was interested in the golden thread that goes through me and you and … all the people out there … That’s what an artist can do, or someone, anyone can do, if there’s a willingness. Pluck that and either it makes you laugh or it makes you cry.”
I agree wholeheartedly with his take on this and yours. We all are connected, we all are part of One, and we all have a responsibility on this planet to remember that, and to reinforce that and to re-imagine that for the better –– and no matter what hostilities and division and other challenges we may face. As a writer and podcaster and interviewer and media producer I want to lend my voice to this end and give an bigger voice to those who are like-minded.
Please note the button for donations down the side of this blog to the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health.
John and Joyce and “Company” brought people together with a silly sitcom farce. And I don’t care what any TV critic or intellectual or whatever has to say — “Three’s Company” plucked some heartstrings, baby! I am so proud and honored to have been able to write a book that I hope fully celebrates this and salutes those who made it so. And I hope my book on John does the same thing, as his life embodied the very spirit of the golden thread.
Tell us about some of the adventures that your Three’s Company trip has brought you – you’ve met the stars, seen the locations, researched extensively.
“Trip” is the ideal double (triple?) entendre to describe the journey I’ve had with the show. I interviewed John for the book for the first time in person just as he completed filming “Slingblade” in July 1995 — just two weeks after I finished my studies at TU and moved to LA. I remember keeping my cool and staying more in journalist/author mode versus fan mode all but maybe once or twice that day. I told him how much he affected my youth: “My friends would always ask, ‘Did you see “Three’s Company” last night?’ ‘Did you see John Ritter fall up the steps on ‘The People Choice Awards’?” I think I reigned myself in a bit when I then said, very “author”-itatively, “You really deserved your Emmy.” Thank God he didn’t call the “author”-ities ; ). Instead, he genuinely said, “Why, thank you so much” and, after the interview, gave me one of his trademark, big old John Ritter bear hugs.
– Joyce DeWitt, the sensitive and private soul that she is, started crying during her first in-person interview, when I asked her about how the show ended for her. The maitre d’ ended up bringing her a box of Kleenex and looking at me like, “Why are you making Joyce DeWitt cry?”
– On a more whimsical note … Audra Lindley and I went to a screening of “Dangerous Minds” (!).
– And at a dinner following a book signing in June 1998, I broke out a vintage bottle of celebratory Dom Perignon that John sent me — with a note signed, “Your pal, Jack Tripper” — upon publication. Joyce and Priscilla joined in the toast. And then when the waiter showed up to take after-dinner drink orders, Richard clarified the coffee requests of Don Knotts and Norman Fell (who were sitting, Regal Beagle-style, in their own booth): “Mr. Furley wants caffeinated coffee; Mr. Roper wants decaf,” sayest Larry Dallas. I about died laughing. So surreal and so fun.
– Perhaps most surreal of all: In 2002, after living in Hollywood for six and a half years, I suddenly had to move, and a family friend led me to an apartment with a great beach view on Ocean Front Walk in Venice. I’d never even visited this part of the boardwalk before. The week before I moved, TV Guide assigned me to write a story about the 25th anniversary of “Three’s Company.” As I was lamenting my approaching deadline and my inability to enjoy my new surroundings given my work load (I also worked full time as a magazine art director), one of my new neighbors said, “Hey, you do realize they shot the opening credits of the show right out in front of this building?” I had no idea! At this moment I realized just how strangely deep of a kindred connection I had with this zany sitcom.
Three’s Company was not without controversy, when after five seasons Suzanne Somers who starred as Chrissy demanded a lot of money. It caused politics and fallouts, with Suzanne eventually being replaced by Jenilee Harrison and eventually by Priscilla Barnes. One thing I always wondered was why even though it was new actresses they didn’t simply continue the character of Chrissy instead of creating new characters. That happens often in other shows – and I know you’re not a writer or a producer of the show but maybe you have some insight.
Good question! I think because Suzanne’s portrayal of Chrissy was so indelible, and Suzanne’s celebrity so undeniable, the producers knew better than to try to continue the character with a new actress. Also, when Jenilee was brought in “temporarily” as Chrissy’s kinda-sorta similar cousin in fall 1980, I think there was a still a chance that Suzanne could’ve returned. Once the decision was made to fire her by spring 1981, and after all of the painful separation, I don’t think virtually anyone on that set wanted even to hear the name “Chrissy,” let alone “Suzanne.” Instead, sadly, it was as if the character was killed off.
These rifts lasted a long time, with Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Somers only recently making up. It’s also the only bit of controversy I can find ANYWHERE about John Ritter who seems to have been a thoroughly nice person and although there are reports that they made up, from reading between the lines I’m not sure that the rift was completely healed. What are your thoughts about this, and also – at the time while watching the show I’m not aware that anyone picked this up. A sign of great acting?
Definitely great acting by all three during Suzanne’s final episode, “A Hundred Dollars a What?” Prior to that, I think John and Suzanne got along famously. With Joyce and Suzanne, there was some tension at times, but you wouldn’t know it given the sweet, if sometimes exasperated, relationship between Janet and Chrissy. It was nice to see these ladies remember the good times after not speaking to each other for 31 years (!) when they reunited on Suzanne’s Internet show in an interview that taped in December 2011. Likewise, fans who were lucky enough to see the CBS Early Show “retro reunion” between John and Joyce in 2001 could find some sense of completion during their one on-camera get-together.
John and Suzanne, though, didn’t quite make up the way the public thinks they did — despite running into each other in 1995 and then chatting again in 2002. There’s quite a story here that hasn’t fully surfaced, and I hope one day to tell that story in its entirety. What’s weird is, after stressing for so long after he passed that she and John very much made up, Suzanne said in an interview in 2012 on “The Talk” that she and John only “kind of” reconciled. (I’m paraphrasing here — can’t remember exactly what she said right now, but in essence it was “kind of.”) This was while Suzanne was promoting her recently-taped reunion with Joyce and the phone conversation Suzanne and Joyce had prior to this reunion. And for now I think I’ll just leave it at that ; ).
You wrote a book and produced a movie! Where can we get copies of these (I can include links to selling pages) and what was the inspiration?
Thank you for asking! Well, John was the biggest inspiration — just as he is of the long-in-the-works biography on him that I’m writing. “Come and Knock on Our Door” has been out of print for a few years, and I don’t think the movie is out yet on DVD. (Hmmm, maybe it should be packaged with a reissue of the book?) My original publisher wanted to do an ebook version of the “Three’s Company” book but just wanted to release it as a text-only edition with some of the photos that already had been printed. That’s not my vision at all.
I want to do something much more special and dynamic — a revised print edition with some new written content, full-color images and possibly a DVD insert, and a multimedia ebook with video, audio and other exclusives. The fans and the show deserve only the best, so I hope everyone who keeps asking can keep patient till late 2014 and/or 2015. I promise you it will be worth the wait! After much waiting, I got all the rights back to the book and am presently exploring all options to execute new versions of the book. The Internet and other technologies have opened some exciting new possibilities, so I want to take the proper amount of time and care to do this right. In the meantime, I’ll update folks when I can on my websites, Retroality.TV and ChrisMann.TV, and at facebook.com/ComeandKnockOnOurDoor and on Twitter @RetroalityTV.
Have you written any other books or movies?
In addition to the book on John, I’ve been working on a behind-the-scenes book about “The Price is Right.” The ongoing legal battles behind that show have been a huge impediment in getting that book off the ground. Just when I think all the “Barker’s Beauty”/”Price” model lawsuits are done, another pops up, or, in the latest case, a $8.5 million ruling is overturned and another case goes on appeal. We’re talking 20 years of Barker Beauty-related litigation here that makes the Suzanne Somers vs. “Three’s Company” debacle look like child’s play!
I’ve written a couple of screenplays and am now developing a sitcom pilot. I’m waiting for the TV movie market to make a comeback — despite the success of the “Three’s Company” telefilm in 2003, the MOW industry pretty much fizzled shortly thereafter. When two-hour TV movies make their full return in the hopefully not-too-distant future, I’ll be ready to strike. Recently one of my screenplays was a finalist in the TVWriter.com “Spec Scriptacular” contest, so I’m encouraged.
The main reason the John Ritter book has been so delayed is because my life took a major, unexpected detour about eight years ago. With the money I made from the NBC movie, I’d moved my sister and her three teenaged kids to LA from Oklahoma in 2002. The four of them, my wonderful mom and I all lived in the Ocean Front Walk apartment building until it caught fire and forced us out in 2003. (We lived in a Ramada Inn in Inglewood, Calif. for a month — PARTY!) My sister became disabled shortly thereafter, and I found it back-breaking to try to support so many people in Venice on one salary — so in January 2005, we moved about three hours north of LA, to a small, rural town (deja vu!) on the central coast. By the end of that year, my mom and I suddenly found ourselves raising my twin nephews — one of whom, Jared, now calls me “Dad,” God bless his heart — on our own. This, despite the fact that Mom, who until 2001 helped raised the kids in Oklahoma, is also physically disabled and has received no support whatsoever from any other family member.
Long story short, I’ve been living one helluva sitcom for a very long time.
This is my brand of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s popular culture as channeled through my musings as well as the inspiring and amusing stories of those who lived it and survived it. I define Retroality as “refreshing reality with a retro twist.” Most recently, my interviews and commentary have taken the form of our monthly-ish podcast, “Reimagine That!” — “where retro pop meets forward thought.” The forward thought includes the spiritual aspects of celebs’ lives as well as a spiritually-based dream interpretation segment co-hosted by the amazing Yvonne Ryba, titled “Reawakenings.” The podcast (co-produced by the equally amazing Linda Kay) and the blog are on hiatus while I launch and otherwise give focus to some other creative projects, but my plan eventually is to extend the brand into a publishing and production company. As I plan the launch of ChrisMann.TV (future home of Chris Mann Enterprises) in 2014, all of the archived material will remain available at Retroality.TV. I’m excited to announce that the podcast will return in some form later this year, most likely as a live show on BlogTalkRadio. Stay tuned!
Tell me about some of the other TV shows and stars you’ve met and covered?
I’ve had the great fortune to interview and art direct several classic and current TV and film stars via my work over the last 13 years with a wonderful company in Los Angeles called Basic Media Group.
I art directed Eva Longoria, Gilles Marini, Cheryl Ladd, Jacqueline Bisset and even Joyce DeWitt for various health magazines a few years back. Among the celebs I’ve interviewed for cover stories are Lynda Carter, Jaclyn Smith, Olivia Newton-John, Sally Field, Wendie Malick, Linda Gray, Paula Abdul, Lindsey Vonn, Joe Manganiello, Apolo Ohno, Mario Lopez, Shemar Moore and (phew!) Antonio Sabato Jr. I’ve been fortunate to cover shows ranging from “24,” “Southland” and “Nikita” to “The Price is Right,” “Three’s Company” and various recent TV reboots/”reimaginings” for the Los Angeles Times and online and print magazines.
Which are your other favourite shows, and why?
“Roseanne,” “Ellen,” “The Golden Girls,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Office,” “The Comeback,” “SNL” and “Gimme a Break!” (all hail Nell Carter!) — because they make me laugh, laugh, laugh. And “Law and Order: SUV,” because nobody delivers gritty exposition like Ice T.
What is Chris Mann Enterprises?
This is my umbrella company that I plan to grow in the next few years. Ironically, no matter how much it expands, I will not be selling umbrellas.
Where now for Chris Mann?
New year, new media, new age! That’s my motto for 2014. That, and “Come and Knock on Our Door … Once More!”
Please share any other info you feel you would like to.
I simply want to say thank you again so much, Gaynor, for giving me this opportunity to share some of my story, particularly as it pertains to “Three’s Company” and John. Your Pop Speaking blog is terrific, so keep up the great work — and here’s to a happy and healthy 2014! Our immense thanks to Chris Mann for this interview. Also please note the donation tab to the Foundation for Aortic Health down the side of this page.