Maid Marian's Memoirs
John Ritter's widow gives UTHealth and her buxom boobs both their book due
Amy Yasbeck’s new memoir, With Love and Laughter, John Ritter is not all tears and tribute.
Although it deals with her recovery following the sudden death of her husband, actor John Ritter, of an aortic dissection in 2003 on the fifth birthday of the couple’s daughter, Yasbeck’s humor — which is as fiery as her hair — abounds.
I met with Yasbeck on her short stop in Houston to promote her book at Brazos Bookstore, and chatted at the Texas Medical Center about her writing process, her health advocacy and getting in with Mel Brooks.
Of her audition for Brook's Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the actress recalls that the casting call demanded a twentysomething blonde, buxom, virginal actress with a British accent.
"Let's just say I was 30 and none of the above," Yasbeck says. Ritter went over every line with her, morphing into Maid Marian as they reviewed.
"He was flitting around the house pretending to have a bird on his finger," Yasbeck says, and she used the three or so things she could make believable and took them into the audition. As we all know, she got the part.
As for the "buxom" mandate, Yasbeck admits that she "stuffed everything in my shirt that came in pairs," and remembers the incredulous look she got from a lingerie saleswoman when she purchased a 38DD bra for the role.
Yasbeck surmises that the other infamous piece of her iconic Maid Marian costume — the hulking chastity belt — is being used as a planter somewhere. We joke that it was the original Spanx.
But Houston readers of Yasbeck's tome will find more than insight into her acting career and relationship with Ritter. The book delves deep into Yasbeck and the Ritter family's work with UTHealth to raise awareness of aortic disease, with a chapter late in the book devoted to Dr. Dianna Milewicz's work in genetics.
Yasbeck first reached out to Milewicz in 2005 after reading a series on aortic aneurysms in the Wall Street Journal that featured her work — a series that ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize.
She brought Ritter’s brother Tommy to Houston along with Ritter’s children to be screened for genes that Milewicz had linked to aortic aneurysm — a potentially fatal bulge that results from a weakened wall in the aorta. Tommy ultimately also suffered an aortic aneurysm and had surgery to have his aortic arch replaced. Milewicz, who has since formed a close bond with Yasbeck and the Ritter family, says he likely would have died without screening.
“What we're learning is that the same things that cause aortic problems cause problems in the whole vascular system. The Ritter’s father, Tex Ritter, also died suddenly of what now appears to be aortic disease, and it appears there is something familial,” Milewicz says.
With Love and Laughter was years in the making. Yasbeck says she rejected the notion of using a ghostwriter, instead hunting for a talented editor to move around and repackage her seemingly endless material.
"For years, since John died, I had been writing notes on napkins," Yasbeck says. "I would tell people to remember something like 'fish and chips' until I had pages of these couple-of-word expressions, and each one was a story I could tell you that turned into a paragraph, that turned into a chapter."
Yasbeck says that though the book is something of a tribute to her late husband, her publisher, Simon & Schuster, encouraged her to explore herself and who she was before coming into the relationship.
As a result, bookstores have a hard time deciding where to file it. "Some have it in grief and bereavement, some have it with the celebrity memoirs and some have it in the health section," Yasbeck says.
Six hundred families are now enrolled in the John Ritter research program at UTHealth, including Ritter's four children. Five genes have been connected to the congenital heart defect that killed him, and the study is ongoing.
Yasbeck's passion is persuasive. It's impossible to speak with her (she sounds as informed as any doctor) and not come away with a sense of the imperative. It's imperative that people stop being misdiagnosed and that their conditions stop being miscategorized as "cardiac events."
Equally imperative as personal screenings is the knowledge base of first-responders. If a person suffering from an aortic dissection is treated for a heart attack with blood thinners, for example, it poses problems for surgery. The importance of correct first response is especially dear to Yasbeck — Ritter was being treated for a heart attack when he died.
"The medical community has embraced the genetic risk of breast cancer," Yasbeck says. "This is just as important, and as much, if not more, of a genetic disposition."
Although clearly impassioned, Yasbeck says it was difficult at times allowing Ritter's name and her face become the champions of awareness.
"There was the pre-John Ritter awareness and the post-John Ritter awareness," Yasbeck says.
She writes in her book about the scales of tragedy — how based on its pertinence to you, a devastating tsunami can seem distant and manageable while your own bathtub overflowing can seem like a personal tragedy.
"With John, the scales of tragedy were blurred, because people felt like they knew him," Yasbeck says. "It's this kid you grew up with. And the public reaction was like, 'we can't let this happen to anyone else in our family.' "
And with the continued work of UTHealth and Dr. Milewicz — who Yasbeck praises as an M.D. as well as a scientist, a person who sees both the person and the bigger picture — it won't.
Editor's note: Don't miss Caroline Gallay's earlier story on Diana Milewicz's quest to fight sudden death and isolate the genes that killed John Ritter.