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‘8 Simple Rules,’ the sitcom that gave us Kaley Cuoco and endured after John Ritter’s death, turns 20

The show overcame the beloved star's stunning death and introduced Cuoco to viewers.
The original cast of "8 Simple Rules."Robert Trachtenberg / Disney General Entertainment
/ Source: TODAY

It’s funny how fate has ideas of its own.

On Sept. 17, 2002, the highly anticipated sitcom “8 Simple Rules” premiered on ABC. Starring John Ritter, Katey Sagal and a little-known teenager named Kaley Cuoco, you don’t need the benefit of two decades of hindsight to know that the show had the ingredients to be a hit. The unexpected death of Ritter, though, steered the series in a different direction that may have also altered the careers of some of its stars.

The series, initially called “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” was adapted from the W. Bruce Cameron book of the same name. It featured Ritter and Sagal as the married parents of three teenage kids, Bridget (Cuoco), Kerry (Amy Davidson) and Rory (Martin Spanjers). Ritter played Paul Hennessy, a sportswriter who stays home to take care of the kids while wife Cate (Sagal) works as a full-time nurse.

A family sitcom with a hint of “Family Ties” in it, “8 Simple Rules” was one of the most promoted new shows on ABC’s schedule that fall. Fate, however, would ultimately lead to tragedy when Ritter unexpectedly died shortly before the comedy’s second season premiered.

The Beginning

Ritter and Sagal weren’t just known quantities in TV — they had come from two of the most important sitcoms in history. Ritter, of course, played Jack Tripper on “Three’s Company,” a role which netted him an Emmy Award and showed his flair for superlative physical comedy, against which actors are still compared today. He’d also had memorable roles on “Hearts Afire,” “Hooperman” and “Ally McBeal,” the latter two of which earned him Emmy nominations.

Sagal, meanwhile, played nagging housewife Peg Bundy on “Married With Children,” which had ended its 11-season run in 1997. Their proven track record brought instant name recognition, but it was a double-edged sword.

Ritter (left) became a comedy legend playing Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," while Sagal (right) helped put Fox on the map with her portrayal of Peg Bundy on "Married with Children."
Ritter (left) became a comedy legend playing Jack Tripper on "Three's Company," while Sagal (right) helped put Fox on the map with her portrayal of Peg Bundy on "Married with Children."Sygma / Getty Images

“It’s kind of a blessing and a curse of being on a show for so many years. It’s a blessing to be successful and then it’s also like, people really think that’s who you are,” Sagal told TODAY in a phone interview.

“I remember at the beginning the network was a little bit scared that it was going to be Jack Tripper and Peg Bundy,” she said about “8 Simple Rules.” “And they didn’t want that. And, so, I remember going in to read with John and John kind of poking his head out and saying, ‘You’re my favorite.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, John.’ So sweet.”

Ritter and Sagal, who had previously worked together on a 1998 TV movie called “Chance of a Lifetime,” injected the kind of pedigree into the show that created a serious buzz around it and had at least one co-star giddy with delight.

“Did I think I hit the jackpot? A hundred percent,” Davidson told TODAY in a phone interview. “And was I so excited to be working with both of them? A hundred percent. They lit up any room they ever walked in. And I just wanted to soak up their grace.”

ABC's "8 Simple Rules"
Kaley Cuoco, Amy Davidson, Katey Sagal and John Ritter in a scene from the first season of "8 Simple Rules."Gale Adler / Disney General Entertainment

Davidson describes the experience of working with Ritter as “an absolute dream” and points to a conversation they once had about how fortunate they were to be working actors.

“And it just really set the course, a perspective of, we’re storytellers and it’s an honor to do what we do and sometimes the jobs come easier than others,” she said.

“It was a dream right from the get-go. And it kept getting better and better.”

amy davidson

“And when he said that, to me, I was like, ‘OK, he’s human.’ But, also, what a lesson I want to hold tight through the rest of my career, my entire career. I really don’t take anything for granted.”

As a TV veteran, Sagal had high hopes for “8 Simple Rules.”

“John and I both came from shows that had run a long time, so I’m sure we were both thinking that and John was such a magic person,” she said. “It just felt like it would keep going forever.”

Working with Ritter was pure joy.

Ritter tried to have all the answers as a parent to Cuoco on "8 Simple Rules."Ron Tom / Disney General Entertainment

“It was belly laughs every day,” Sagal said. “He was the funniest person, on and off.”

“It was a dream right from the get-go,” Davidson said of being on the show. “And it kept getting better and better.”

Cuoco, who was not available for this story when asked by TODAY, has spoken highly of Ritter over the years.

“The respect and the kindness and the joy he brought to that set, it was unbelievable,” she told Variety in 2021 about working with him.

A fast start ... and a stunning death

The series burst out of the gate with a bang, placing fourth in the weekly Nielsen ratings, with 17.3 million viewers tuning in. In its first season, it averaged 11.1 million viewers, placing it 37th in the Nielsen ratings. Davidson and Sagal point to Ritter for keeping things moving.

“The No. 1 always sets the tone,” Sagal said. “That’s what I’ve learned. And he set the tone for comfort, for funny, not to be self-conscious.”

“John just radiated light,” Davidson said.

While the show was not a smash, it held its own, only to be rocked when Ritter died. He was taken to the hospital and died of an aortic dissection after he complained he wasn’t feeling well while rehearsing during the second season. It was Sept. 11, 2003. He was 54 years old.

One of the world’s most beloved TV stars was dead and the future of a promising comedy was up in the air. Someone on a TV series dying during a show’s run had happened before and has happened since. The blow for “8 Simple Rules” was immeasurable.

Cuoco (left) as boy crazy Bridget, with Ritter and Sagal.Craig Sjodin / Disney General Entertainment

“It was a very scary and painful time,” Davidson said.

Sagal, who says she liked the show but “really liked it when John was there,” noted the network and producers had to make a decision about what to do, but she hoped to remain true to what had happened.

“We, as a cast, we really felt like, if it was going to go ahead, we wanted to tell it as a true story, like a family that lost their dad,” she said. “And that didn’t feel horrible to us. What would have felt horrible to us was just like, I don’t know, replacing him or brushing it off.”

“John was the center of that show,” she added. “It wasn’t even about the show. It’s really not about the show. It was about losing this incredible person and way too early.”

What happens now?

Ritter’s death was a shock to fans and co-stars alike that plunged “8 Simple Rules” into uncertainty: Does it continue or does it end?

“The potential loss of the show that was like family, and fun and rewarding, that was incredibly scary,” Davidson said.

Davidson (center) played the middle child, alongside Martin Spanjers (left) and Cuoco (right).AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

“It was so heartbreaking,” Sagal said. “Everything was heartbreaking. I mean, I could cry now thinking about it because it was impossible to think of doing it without him. And then it was impossible to think of stopping it.”

Ritter’s death was ultimately written into the show, when his character died. His death was handled in the fourth and fifth episodes of the second season, a two-parter that aired Nov. 4, 2003. James Garner, who portrayed Cate’s father, was brought into the cast, bringing a calm presence to the show.

“It was so heartbreaking. Everything was heartbreaking. I mean, I could cry now thinking about it because it was impossible to think of doing it without him. And then it was impossible to think of stopping it.”

katey sagal on the future of "8 simple rules" after john ritter died

“You can’t replace John Ritter and they didn’t do that,” Davidson said. “He (Garner) grounded us and added a sense of love. And he was like a big, cuddly bear.”

David Spade, who played Cate’s nephew, would later join the cast, too, remaining for the duration of the series’ run. Addressing the death of the show’s leading man is a delicate matter and Sagal said they managed to successfully navigate the waters, although she does think they could have done things differently.

“I’m really proud of the work we were able to do. Here was my only little thing: I think we rushed to get funny again too fast,” she said.

James Garner (front) helped steer "8 Simple Rules" after Ritter's death, as did Suzanne Pleshette (right), who played his ex-wife on the show.AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

“If I was in charge, I probably would have stayed in the reality of it a little bit longer,” she added. “But I was super proud that we handled it the way we did. We got through it the way we did that. Jim Garner came, I mean, he was like a big shoulder. Jim Garner was really amazing.”

The emergence of a star

To look back at “8 Simple Rules” is to look back at what was and what could’ve been. Kaley Cuoco is now an Emmy-nominated actor, who rocketed to stardom on “The Big Bang Theory.” In 2002, she was a teenager who had already built up a lengthy résumé on the small screen, but was not yet a household name.

It’s very easy to ask "What if?" even if it’s not necessarily fair. The final episode of “8 Simple Rules” aired in April 2005. The first episode of “The Big Bang Theory” aired in September 2007. Cuoco enjoyed a stint on “Charmed” in between the two. What if Ritter hadn’t died? Could “8 Simple Rules” have lasted several more years? Would Cuoco have wound up on “The Big Bang Theory”? We’ll never know, but those are questions you can ponder.

Sagal, who would go on to star in the critically acclaimed “Sons of Anarchy,” thinks about what could've been.

The Big Bang Theory, Season Two
Cuoco (right) would go on to extraordinary success starring on "The Big Bang Theory," alongside Jim Parsons (left).Sonja Flemming / CBS

“If it had continued, maybe Kaley wouldn’t have been on ‘The Big Bang (Theory)’ and maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to ‘Sons (of Anarchy).' But if it had gone on, I bet it would have gone on a long time,” Sagal said. “I just think that it was a really great group and great writing. And I just think it might have had its chance to go on a long time.”

Davidson isn’t as quick to say Cuoco would’ve missed the chance to be on “The Big Bang Theory” had the show continued.

“I believe that things happen the way they’re supposed to, even the painful things,” she said. “For me, that’s the only way I can swallow it.”

As for working with Cuoco, Davidson said she quickly established a bond with her.

“I think we kind of became instant sisters, and I don’t have a real-life sister,” she said.

She also said Ritter’s death created a lifelong connection.

“So, through trauma, I think we became closer through the experience of the beautiful show that we got to play on,” she said. “You know what I mean? It felt like playing. It didn’t feel like going to work to me. Yeah, she became my sister. And even to this day we call each other 'Sis,' you know?”

Sagal, who later guest-starred on the 10th-season premiere of “The Big Bang Theory,” also sang Cuoco’s praises, while noting her on-screen siblings were talented.

Davidson (right) said she and Cuoco (left) bonded very quickly on "8 Simple Rules."Craig Sjodin / Disney General Entertainment

“She always knew what she was doing. And she was adorable. She was wonderful,” she said.

“Did I think Kaley was going to be a huge star? Who knows? I don’t know,” she added. “I think she was very special. As I thought Amy Davidson was very special, as I thought Martin Spanjers was very special. I thought they were all special.”

The legacy

The ratings for “8 Simple Rules” eventually slipped. It wound up lasting three seasons for a total of 76 episodes, more without Ritter than with him. It won an Emmy for cinematography and Ritter himself would be nominated posthumously for best lead actor in a comedy series, losing to Kelsey Grammer for “Frasier.”

So, what is the legacy of “8 Simple Rules” all these years later? First and foremost, it marks the loss of a towering and beloved actor in Ritter. Davidson maintains an august view of the show after everything that happened with him.

“I think we did something that was almost impossible,” she said. “And I’m grateful that ABC gave us that chance and didn’t just cancel (us).”

“I always said it wasn’t the show I signed on for, but was I proud of the show that we finished with? Of course, yes,” she added.

“Had John not passed, I don’t know how many years we would have done but, definitely, I think more than three.”

Ritter was the centerpiece of "8 Simple Rules."Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

“8 Simple Rules” wound up looking a lot different at the end than it did at the beginning. Ritter’s death changed the trajectory of the series, and his life, taken away much sooner than anyone ever imagined, was a gift.

“John was so exuberant that it’s almost like he crammed a hundred years into 54,” Davidson said. “That’s what I mean. He had such a light, you know, and not that we subconsciously know when we’re going to die. But was his life taken too short? Was he taken from us prematurely? I feel so, yes, but I also do believe in divine timing.”

There are plenty of what-ifs that come along with thinking about “8 Simple Rules,” but Davidson said everything played out the way it should’ve.

“The show wasn’t supposed to go 10 years, because it didn’t. Because John died. I can’t digest it any other way,” she said.

Twenty years after “8 Simple Rules” premiered, 20 years after Ritter and Sagal returned to the small screen with what looked like a can’t-miss project, 20 years after Cuoco truly burst into the national consciousness, his death still casts a long shadow.

“When I think about ‘8 Simple Rules,’ I think about John,” Sagal said. “That’s what I think about.”