Just over a year ago, the much beloved comic actor John Ritter passed away. I was watching Ritter’s turn as an evil sheriff in the camp horror classic Bride of Chucky when news of Arafat’s death came howling in from the real world, instantly deflating the suspension of disbelief I’d carefully cultivated in order to enjoy the deliciously crazed Muppets-gone-mad plotline before me.
I’ll say it now, and believe it forever: This is a cruel and unjust world. How otherwise can we describe a temporal reality where John Ritter can die days before his 55th birthday and Yasser Arafat can live to 75? How can Three’s Company and Hooperman be canceled while Hamas and Fatah are renewed every season? Scant days after Ritter’s death last year, the Jerusalem Post took the unusual step of calling for Arafat’s assassination in an editorial. It was followed by only small pockets of dissension and outcry in the Jewish state, suggesting that many long-suffering Israelis were fed up with the story line. In fairness, so are many Palestinians.
Perhaps now there is an opportunity for peace. The new Palestinian leadership should take a look at Ritter’s career for some basic pointers. Even when two female characters on Three’s Company were abruptly replaced, no one had to call for John Ritter’s head because he was able to adapt and generously continue to share his apartment with his new roommates. Yes, he maintained his own space, but you never saw him attempt to annex the kitchen or demand the right of return to Chrissy’s room. Likewise, while Ritter’s character recognized that his interests did not line up exactly with those of his landlord Mr. Roper and kept some secrets, he never lost sight of the fact that Mr. Roper was the legal owner of the building, and, therefore, was to be treated with a certain degree of respect and deference when negotiating over certain rules or boundaries. Jack Tripper’s faux gayness might have been a ruse, but it was also a good faith effort to live up to the rules of Mr. Roper’s complex: No unmarried, co-ed cohabitation. (Yeah, times change, huh?)
So in the interest of peace in the Middle East and good television, let us turn to history, which, as we are constantly (and, mostly, fictitiously) warned, we are condemned to repeat, or rerun, as it were, without proper understanding thereof.
JOHN RITTER WAS BORN the same year as the state of Israel, 1948. John’s birth was a considerably more pleasant labor than that of the Jewish state. Ritter, after all, was not converged on by a murderous gang out to annihilate him as he took in his first breath.
At any rate, the actor and the state both survived and prospered. Israel fought and won several wars with its Arab neighbors, chose the right side in the Cold War, and settled about the business of building the first prosperous, democratic country the Middle East had ever known. Ritter was more popular in his neighborhood, eventually becoming student body president at Hollywood High School, before going on to study Psychology and Architecture at the University of Southern California. Eventually he decided to follow his father, the country musician and actor Tex Ritter, into show business.
At the time of Ritter’s birth and the creation of Israel, Yasser Arafat was 19, the sixth of seven children. He received a degree in engineering from Cairo University in 1956, where he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and president of the Union of Palestinian Students. Yasser enjoyed the full Middle Eastern college experience, splitting time between his studies and a hobby of running guns from Egypt into Israel. Like most self-absorbed, self-righteous megalomaniacs who can’t make it in the private sector, Yasser went into politics after college. Three years after graduation he founded Fatah, with a wing, a prayer, and the quaint dream of one day eliminating the state of Israel.
Meanwhile, as Israel was defeating the Arabs for the umpteenth time in the 1967 Six Day War and Arafat shored up his reputation as a terrorist, Ritter traveled England, Scotland, Holland, and Germany performing on the stage.
Ritter appeared in his first movies in 1971 and 1972, just as Israeli athletes were being murdered by Fatah goons at the Munich Olympics. Arafat was already a much-publicized terrorist about town at this point, and in 1974 he became the first representative of a non-governmental agency to address a plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly. (See U.N. policy really hasn’t changed THAT much.) Ritter remained in the shadows until 1977 when he broke out with the aforementioned madcap series, Three’s Company. As Jack Tripper took his first pratfalls, Arafat was masterminding terror plots from Lebanon and then Tunisia. Meanwhile Egypt’s President Awar Sadat, burnt out from having his country’s military destroyed every few years, began negotiating with Israel.
Three’s Company closed shop in 1984, and Ritter ended up in a sort of electronic purgatory, making unmemorable made-for-TV movies for some time. Arafat was similarly transient, moving PLO headquarters from Lebanon to Tunisia to Baghdad, Iraq, during the same period. Israel, it was clear at this point, wasn’t going anywhere.
From 1987 to 1989, Ritter was back on television playing San Francisco cop Harry Hooperman in the underrated weekly comedy, Hooperman. Hooperman had a cute little dog sidekick and everything. In 1989, Arafat also embraced a new role when he was elected as president of a “hypothetical Palestinian state.” Renouncing his pledge to destroy Israel, Arafat was allowed into the Palestinian territories and began negotiations with Israel, eventually resulting in the Oslo Accords.
EVERYWHERE THINGS WERE in flux. Ritter starred in several films, most notably the two brilliant (so says I) Problem Child films and the Academy Award winning Sling Blade. Arafat played a variety of roles during this period, as well. To the ever more adoring international community he played the role of a brave martyr and peacemaker, speaking in English often of “holding out the olive branch.” Elsewhere, ill reported and in Arabic, Arafat played the role of a sinister warrior, pledging to eventually push every Jew into the sea. Maybe he planned to do this with an olive branch. Perhaps it was one of those small lies.
As we entered 2003, Ritter was back on television with a popular new series, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, another touching comedy/drama with Ritter playing the everyman once again. One day he simply collapsed on the set and died shortly thereafter, but not before telling his wife how much he loved and would miss her. Arafat remained on television, looking abominably healthy up until last week.
So now the terrorist will have a state funeral, and half the world, including many supposedly “civilized” nations will send emissaries to grieve for him. Ritter? Well, he’s got a nightly memorial service on Nick at Nick and other cable television channels. Arafat spent the entire lifespan of many a good man perpetuating evil, living a rich celebrated life, while sending little kids off to die in his crusade for the television cameras.
Well, I’m not going to contribute to his ratings. Instead of his funeral, I’m going to watch Problem Child, Sling Blade and agitate for Hooperman reruns or at the very least a DVD release. I’m going to celebrate the life of a good man, taken from us too soon and not celebrated enough, rather than watch the world weep for a terrorist. Oh, excuse me BBC. I mean, a freedom fighter. But in between commercials I’m going to sneak a peek at CNN to see if whoever takes over the Palestinian Authority is going to cancel Arafat’s old and predictable murderous show. It’s about time to move on.