One Simple Rule:
“If That Happens on Show Night, Just Keep Going!”
Early in 2002, John, Stella, and I took a trip to Florida to visit Disney World and see my sister Ann and her husband, Jim. Disney World with Stella was a blast, and I got to show her where Mommy swam around as a mermaid all those years ago in Splash, Too. We stayed in Naples at the Ritz-Carlton, and John had brought some scripts to read for the coming TV season. John always had a pile of prospective TV series scripts, sent by producers and writers, awaiting his perusal. He gave each production his consideration, although he had not been so keen on the idea of jumping back into a half-hour situation comedy. But now that he was the father of a young child again, he wanted a more predictable schedule than guest-starring and film roles afforded him. The world of sitcoms missed him, and John was opening up to the fact that maybe he missed them a little, too.
When we got to the hotel, John tossed a script for an ABC Disney family comedy into a beach bag along with four books and several magazines, and rushed Stella and me out the door with his famous “Here we go!” As I stood onshore with Stella in my arms, she took one look at the waves and started squirming with excitement. Thank God, John was a master at the art of sunscreen application. After all those summers of having to slather his three kids all at once, he had it down to a science—kid number four was not about to get the best of him.
He would gently turn Stella by the top of her head to face him, like he was opening a jar of pickles, and deftly pat dollops of SPF 50 over every inch of her exposed Ritter-pale skin, repeating the word “bink” with every dab. The ritual was inexplicably soothing, like the tranquilizing effect of massaging an alligator’s stomach. John would then quickly rub in the sunscreen while laying out the rules of ocean safety, eye to eye, in a very serious tone, like he was the Mick to Stella’s Rocky Balboa.
I took Stella out into the water, while John stretched out on the patchwork of hotel towels we had constructed for our headquarters. I saw him pick up the script for a show called 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. His first impression of it was that the title was way too long, and he told me later that he was actually expecting not to like it. John had been offered so many sitcom-dad roles that they all pretty much blended together, and he didn’t have much hope that this one would be any better. I watched him give it a cursory read—as in, “bullshit, bullshit, my part”—and he was smiling and laughing to himself. But he didn’t spend very much time on it before tossing it back in the beach bag and taking out a book from his ever-present collection of hardcover novels.
John had no qualms about bringing several books with him even on a short jaunt—history, fiction, suspense, biography, politics—not to mention (but I will, just this once) newspapers, comic books, cartoon compilations, graphic novels, Mad magazines, and anything else he could get his hands on. Home and abroad, a sizable collection of his partially read books and periodicals could be found in every room. Still, he would often take several trips to the local bookstore once we had reached our destination. Sometimes, he would finish one and give it away to whoever happened to be nearby in an attempt to lighten our luggage for the return trip. Upon returning home, however, he would more often than not go to our neighborhood bookstore to replace the one he had gifted on our trip. John had a remarkable passion for reading that he exuberantly shared with his family and friends. He would always excitedly tell me about whatever book he had just finished reading, making a big deal of stopping short so as not to give away any twists that might spoil the plot for me.
After I had Stella, I often employed a thinly veiled passive-aggressive response that only a frazzled new mother could get away with; I would say, “Honey, why don’t you just go ahead and tell me the whole story. You know I’m never going to have chance to read it.” John would always smile patiently and put the book up on one of our many bookshelves, while assuring me, “You will.” After John died, I found myself collecting his partially read books from every room in our house, as well as from his dressing room and his car.
Never one to dog-ear a page for reference, John saved his place with bookmarks made from everything from shooting schedules to toilet paper. I stacked an armload of these books beside my bed, since sleeping through the night had become a memory at that point. I read the first book, Steve Martin’s novel The Pleasure of My Company… and I felt like John was reading a bedtime story aloud to me. A bedtime story about a man with agonizing, paralyzing obsessive-compulsive disorder and the social worker who loves him, but a bedtime story all the same. When I turned a page about two-thirds of the way through, I found a green plastic sword-shaped toothpick marking the last page he’d read. John must’ve been interrupted—perhaps he’d been pounced on by a freshly bathed Stella, or remembered that the Dodger game was on, or gotten a phone call from one of his big kids, or decided his nightly bowl of cornflakes was beckoning, or got an offer from his exhausted but amorous wife that he couldn’t refuse. And he never read further. But I did. In those first months, setting aside his makeshift bookmark and turning the page was as much of a concession to “moving on” as I could make.
Voracious reader that he was, John was just finishing off the entire pile of scripts he’d lugged down to Florida by the time dinner rolled around. I reminded him that we were supposed to eat at my sister’s house in Fort Myers at seven thirty, then I asked him what he thought of the scripts. He answered that there was “nothing there.” I think that would have been that, he would’ve missed the boat, if we hadn’t gotten stuck in traffic on the Tamiami Trail and shown up an hour late for dinner with a passed-out Stella in tow. Ann and her husband, Jim, had just finished watching My Wife and Kids and began recounting some of Damon Wayans’s best lines over dinner.
Ann has one of those laughs that tends to kick into high gear when she gets going, shifting quickly from a laugh to a bray. The more she tries to stop, the more intense it gets. It kind of leaves you wondering whether you should laugh along or open up a can of Heimlich maneuver on her ass. John loved it though. And the more she talked about Damon and how unexpected and outrageous his interactions with his kids were on the show, the more engaged John became. We mused about fathers in general, how they can simultaneously be all-knowing and idiots, and how entertainingly satisfying that is to observe.
Over the course of that conversation, something clicked with John. When we got back to the hotel, he went straight to the no pile on the table and pulled out the script for 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, took it over to the couch, and began to reread it with an open mind and a pencil. The pencil was always a positive sign. When John worked on a script, he wrote in the margins and all over the page. He was scribbling and mouthing the words and laughing to himself. I knew he was feeling invested in this character now and was beginning to picture himself in the role. Stella and I kissed him good night and I went to put her to bed. After she fell asleep, I came out and found him sound asleep with his glasses on, pencil in hand, midscribble. I closed the script, knowing that this was the show for John.
The next day, he talked me into taking our three-year-old up with us on a parasail. John could pretty much talk me into anything. And while we were in the air, he told me he was going to tell his agent yes on the project.
Viewers who had grown up with John were happy to have him back on prime time. The actor who had entertained them on Three’s Company for years with his “roommate problems” was back in their living rooms, now playing a married guy with three kids. His character, Paul Hennessy, was tackling the same issues that a lot of the folks were dealing with at home. The show was an instant hit, winning The People’s Choice Award for best new comedy in January of 2003.
The awards ceremony was on the same day that we were taping Hollywood Squares together for the Valentine’s Day show. Henry Winkler was producing it and had added cut-aways before the commercial breaks. The hand-held camera would pan up and around the gigantic tic-tac-toe grid to catch some of the behind-the-scenes chatter. John saw the camera traveling to our box and whispered in my ear to ask him what he liked best about being on the show. I did and he replied, “Not wearing pants.” And he wasn’t. Henry was very familiar with John’s penchant for dropping comedy trou. Not surprisingly, he and his underpants made it on the air. Luckily, Pantless John always came across more Winnie the Pooh than Winnie the Flasher.
The five-episode taping started on time, but we still got behind schedule. The producers had to ask the celebrity couples to forgo a wardrobe change, thereby blowing the game show illusion that we shot over a five-day period. With the help of the Hollywood Squares crew and our lead-footed limo driver, we made it to the awards just in time.
This was the big fat year of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, produced by Tom Hanks. He and his wife, Rita Wilson, were seated about ten rows in front of us on the aisle. The movie won an award in practically every category, and Tom got up and down off that stage so many times that it got kind of funny. Then the category for Best New Comedy came up and 8 Simple Rules won. John jumped up, ran down the aisle, and said, “Eat shit, Tom,” into his ear on the way to the stage. Tom was still doubled over laughing when John went up and gave one of the most eloquent and gracious acceptance speeches on behalf of any show I’d ever heard.
At the end of August 2003, 8 Simple Rules returned to production on the Disney Studio lot to begin shooting the second season. John set out for work on his first day back with a load of Stella’s toys, including a three-foot-tall teddy bear and a grocery bag full of plastic food in the backseat of his car. When Stella and I showed up to the first show of the 2003 season, we were in for a bit of a surprise. She opened the door to John’s dressing room, and he and the teddy bear were already seated at a miniature tea party. John had Stella-ed up half of his dressing room with a little table and chairs borrowed from the set-dressing department. He was perched on a toddler-size chair, teacup in hand, pinky finger extended. He smiled at Stella and said in his fanciest voice, “Oh, dooooo come in.” John had also brought a couple pairs of Stella’s pajamas. He told her that she could stay later on show nights this season, now that she was turning five.
Over the previous year, John had fallen back in love with television. And the feeling was mutual. Not only did John find himself on the perfect show at the perfect time but he was working with the perfect people. He adored the 8 Simple Rules characters and the talented cast and crew who brought them to life. And they adored him. Some of his coworkers, by virtue of their youth, were fairly new to the business. They truly appreciated the opportunity to work side by side with one of the most entertaining and grateful actors they would ever meet. They had the opportunity to learn from a true sitcom veteran. His show business advice, whether heartfelt or tongue in cheek, was received gratefully by all of them.
During rehearsals, he often reminded them about his “one simple rule,” a rule that was very familiar to us at home. Any time we accidentally poked ourselves in the eye while gesticulating, or burped while telling a dramatic story, or tripped and dropped a plate on the way to the dinner table, John would announce, “Okay, everybody, if that happens on show night, just keep going.” The cast of 8 Simple Rules never knew how prophetic John’s motto would be.
© 2010 AMY YASBECK