Director Robby Benson recalled noticing that John Ritter was struggling with health issues while filming an episode of 8 Simple Rules, and he regrets not speaking up and possibly saving the actor’s life.
Benson joined the series in 2003, the same year that Ritter passed away from a thoracic aortic dissection, which is a genetic condition that causes a tear in the body’s main artery. While filming one episode, Benson decided to put Ritter to work and show the physical comedic play that made Ritter famous in Three’s Company. While talking on Oprah’s Where Are They Now, he recalled the story.
“What if you run up the stairs, run across the bedroom, hop over the bed, [and] go to the window upstairs,” Benson remembered telling Ritter. “And as we were doing it, I noticed his breathing become heavier and heavier, and I really didn’t wanna embarrass him by saying anything. But I didn’t want him to do it again.”
Benson took John Ritter aside and brushed it off as nothing, saying, “Let’s figure out a different way.” Ritter seemed relieved with the decision and thanked Benson for changing the scene. The two shared a hug and carried on with filming.
Robby Benson Believed John Ritter Was a Lifelong Friend
Benson was scheduled to end his tenure on the series a few days later. On that day, he got a call around 3 am and found out John Ritter had died.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Benson said mournfully. “And I asked him what happened, and he said, ‘Well, something happened with his heart.”
“All it made me think was, you know, why didn’t I have the guts to open my mouth when I saw him breathing heavily?”
Robby Benson admitted that he had only known John Ritter for about two weeks. But he felt like he’d made a lifelong friend. And as a friend, he believes he should have felt comfortable addressing the health issue.
“If I had made a friend for life, why didn’t I just open my mouth? Why didn’t I say something to him?” he asked himself.
The actor and director said he makes it a point to “be proactive” today, even if it feels “obnoxious.”
“Maybe, just maybe, if I had said something, he’d still be with us,” he concluded. “Because he was a national treasure to me.”
John Ritter died on Sept. 11, 2003. While working on set, he began to suffer extreme chest pains and went to the ER, where doctors treated him for a misdiagnosed heart attack. His family has since set up The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health in hopes of helping others avoid a tragedy like theirs.
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