EXCLUSIVE: 'Arrow' Newcomer Tyler Ritter on the Death of His Acting Icon Dad and Finding His Way to Star City
By Leena Tailor
Photo: Getty Images
It was a bittersweet moment when Tyler Ritter got the call that he had landed his first lead role in the CBS sitcom The McCarthys in 2014. It marked a monumental breakthrough in the tough road for an actor trying to get their big break in Hollywood. On the other hand, Tyler couldn’t pick up the phone to tell the person who would have been most proud, his late father John Ritter, who died 13 years ago.
“They talk about the seven stages of grief, but I think most people who have lost a family member would agree you’re constantly going through all the stages,” Tyler told ETat the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where John accepted a Family Television Award for Best Comedy for 8 Simples Rules, four weeks before he died at 54. “It’s not like, ‘Okay I was sad, now let’s move on to denial.’ You’re constantly cycling through it.”
“It’s a lifelong thing and maybe the lows aren’t quite as low as they were in the days, weeks and years following, but there are still huge lows,” he added. “Getting [The McCarthys] was one of the greatest highs of my life and one of the biggest lows because he would have been the first call that I made.”
The shortlived show opened doors for Tyler, who later scored gigs on Hot in Cleveland and NCIS. The 31-year-old actor was driving along California’s Pacific Coast Highway when he received news of another major role -- that of Detective Malone in the upcoming fifth season of The CW hit Arrow. This time the news wasn’t overshadowed by grief.
“I didn’t have that moment with Arrow,” Tyler recalled. “McCarthys was particularly tough because I was around the same age he was when he got his big breakthrough on Three’s Company and there were parallels with the two shows and characters. McCarthys also made me feel like I could now say I’m a working actor and had succeeded. Maybe there was a piece in my subconscious that was worried I had to quickly make him proud, so when I got that job it was like, ‘I’ve made him proud.’”
Tyler – whose older brother Jason and mom Nancy are also actors – was just 18 and starting college when his father's death turned his world upside-down. For years, the mention of his dad would “set him off” and he couldn’t tell stories involving John without getting upset.
“I had lived a sheltered and blessed life up until 2003 when I lost him and two grandparents within three-and-a-half months," Tyler said. "I was just in survival mode. I studied and tried not to think about it, but that didn’t work. It came back violently and forced me to deal with it. Now, I have moments where I’m at peace with it and moments where it’ll creep up and hit me, but I have tools to deal with that, whereas I used to push everything away.”
It was his dad who took Tyler to his first stage performance when he was 9 years old, helping him read books to children on the PBS series Storytime. Although he “looked like a terrified little child” onscreen, Tyler was struck by how fun his father’s job was. By high school, Tyler was doing plays and making student films.
In college, where he studied psychology, his films were winning awards but he became reluctant to follow the obvious, Ritter-trodden path to Hollywood and instead moved to Argentina to teach English. Nine months turned into three years as Tyler went on a journey of self-discovery.
“At that point, I had doubts about acting. I was set on blazing my own path in life, so I felt if I was in a country I had no ties to, with a language I didn’t speak, I could be at peace with whatever I decided to do with my life," he said. "I met my future wife and she was one of the biggest forces at encouraging me to try [acting] there. I auditioned for this musical theater company and the fact that I booked something where I was singing, dancing and acting got me so excited.”
Getting married and returning to L.A. with his wife, Argentinean director Lelia Parma, Tyler started taking acting classes then hit the audition circuit. With frequent rejection, he credits growing up in the industry for giving him a thick skin and helping him navigate Hollywood.
“To say it hasn’t helped would be naïve. I’m fortunate that both my dad and brother were and are extremely respectful to everyone," Tyler said. "To get into the room and know that Jason has set up a good vibe and people have an idea of what family I come from does help, but I also feel confident in the work I’ve put in and justified to be where I am now.”
Now, Tyler’s proud to be diversifying his own acting reel with Arrow’s Detective Malone, who he says is starkly different to previous characters he has played. “He’s a detective in Star City, which is the roughest city in the world… he’s seen some things!” Tyler said. “I’m absolutely loving working on the show. Every time I see Stephen [Amell,] I’m so inspired to work out and beef up. He might be Arrow in real life! He’s really cool and seems like a great family man with his daughter.”
A fan of Arrow, the greatest gift for Tyler has been discovering more about his father through the show.
“A bunch of Arrow crew worked with him and everybody has stories. That’s one of the blessings of following in his line of work. I step on set and people constantly say, ‘Hey man, your dad was one of the nicer people. I gotta tell you a story,’" he shared. "One woman had a recurring role on 8 Simple Rules and I was in a class with her and she gave me The Alchemist. He had given her a copy and told her it reminded him of me.”
“I’m getting to build a fuller image of him,” he continued. “We always had our connections through baseball and Prince, so it was a very fun father-son relationship, but not a lot of digging into ‘What it takes to be a man,’ conversations. I missed out on that, which I’m now getting to fill in. I realize maybe there’s a piece of me that knew there was more to discover of my relationship with him and that’s what brought me back to LA.”
As his career steps into high gear, the lessons of his father are constantly in the back of his mind, from always being prepared on set, to achieving work-life balance. “He worked hard and practiced what he preached. It’s cliché, but he preached love and told us he loved us every time he saw or talked to us," Tyler said. "My parents separated when I was 6, but my mom understood his role in our lives was important, so we saw him all the time. You could say he was obsessed with work, so the fact he made the time showed what a beautiful balance he had.”
“With where I am with my career, my goal is to have an open wave of communication with my wife to make sure we keep that balance too,” he added. “She’s very dedicated to her work as well, so we want to ensure we have family-work balance. My my dad did a dang good job of that.”