LOS ANGELES, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- ABC has announced that it will continue the half-hour comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" despite the death of its star John Ritter -- with future shows dealing with the way the show's family copes with the death of his character.
Ritter, best known for his Emmy-winning performance in "Three's Company," died on Sept. 11 of a dissection of the aorta, which resulted from a flaw in his heart that had gone undiagnosed. He became ill on the set of "8 Simple Rules," and died a short time later at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif.. He was 54.
In "8 Simple Rules," Ritter played Paul Hennessy, a sportswriter who has spent years on the road but who decided to take on more parental duties when his wife, played by Katey Sagal, decided to pursue a career in nursing. He had taped three episodes for the show's second season scheduled to begin Sept. 23.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, ABC Entertainment Group TV Chairman Lloyd Braun said the show will evolve from a light comedy about a father raising two high school-aged girls, into a show about a family coping with the loss of a parent. Braun said ABC is convinced that going on with the show is the right thing to do.
"Everybody recognizes that John loved that show," said Braun. "He'd have wanted the show to continue."
The network issued a statement by Ritter's wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, supporting the decision.
"John always dealt with anything that life threw at him with humor," said the statement. "He felt so lucky to be working with such wonderful people every day. They all had such a warm friendship, and I know John would want his friends to be able to continue doing what they love."
ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne acknowledged that the network considered dropping the show, but thought better of it.
"That was our initial instinct, because John is clearly irreplacable," said Lyne. "But the more we talked about it, the more we saw the impact of his death not just in our family, but across the country, and felt there was another way to go here."
The network plans to show the three new episodes that Ritter appeared in, before going to reruns from the show's first season. In the meantime, writers and producers will retool the show, with plans calling for new episodes without Ritter ready for air in November.
In those episodes, the TV family of "8 Simple Rules" will be shown handling the death of Paul Hennessy.
Braun conceded that there is some uncertainty about how the decision will play out.
"We are going to be doing something here that we recognize is uncharted territory," said Braun.
A major consideration for the network is to avoid the appearance of continuing "8 Simple Rules" for mercenary reasons. According to Daily Variety, the show -- one of the network's too-rated comedies -- returns some of ABC's best ad rates for comedy shows.
While "8 Simple Rules" has been a modest success for ABC, it has also become a significatn part of the foundation for the network's strategy of returning to dominance in prime time by relying more heavily on family comedies. Last month, the show was named best TV comedy at the Family Television Awards.
The awards are presented by the Family Friendly Programing Forum, an initiative of the Association of National Advertisers intended to promote family programming on the networks. "8 Simple Rules" was one of a handful of network shows in recent years that were developed with seed money from the FFPF.
ANA Senior Vice President Barbara Bacci Mirque told United Press International officials at the organization were devastated when they heard the news of Ritter's death, and concerned that "another family friendly show was going to bite the dust." She praised ABC's decision to go forward with the show.
"ABC has made a courageous decision to take the show in another direction but keep it on the air," said Mirque.
The ANA is a coalition of more than 40 major TV advertisers -- including Johnson & Johsnon, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble and Sears.
There aren't many examples of TV series successfully surviving the death of headlining stars.
"Cheers" weathered the death of the popular supporting player Nicholas Colasanto, replacing him with Woody Harrelson, who ran with the opportunity and became a major star in his own right. When Nancy Marchand died, producers of "The Sopranos" recycled film footage and audio clips from her earlier appearances into new episodes of the show, to give her character a chance to die as part of the storyline.
Braun said "8 Rules" likely will turn from a star vehicle for Ritter into an ensemble comedy featuring the surviving regular cast members -- Katey Sagal, Kaley Cuoco, Amy Davidson and Martin Spanjers.
"While no question John was the central figure of the show, we have some fantastic actors around him," said Braun.
The executives said there was no truth to a rumor circulating in Hollywood that Henry Winkler (Fonzie on "Happy Days") had been contacted about replacing Ritter. There had also been reports that David Spade and Howie Mandel had been approached.
The ABC executives said the storyline about grieving the death of a parent would not go on indefinitely, and would eventually give way to the kind of light comedy that "8 Simple Rules" was originally meant to be.
"This kind of thing hits real families, it hit the Ritter family," said Braun. "But as it feels right and organic, comedy will be reintroduced into this show."