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Serious note added to show

Times Staff Writer

Sunday night's Emmy Awards show was conceived as a laugh fest, spotlighting a gaggle of comics ranging from Bernie Mac to Jon Stewart. But in the days leading up to the broadcast, it's tragedy that has moved to center stage, upsetting the celebratory tone of the awards.

Major televised awards shows traditionally have a segment known in the entertainment business as the "necrology," an homage to the great and near-great who have died the previous year.

With an unusually abundant list of major deaths in the past year to note — Bob Hope, "Mister Rogers" Fred Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and David Brinkley, just to name some of the most prominent — producer Don Mischer already had a formidable task.

But preparations for the 55th annual prime-time Emmys became more complex with the sudden death Sept. 11 of John Ritter, a television stalwart who was starring in a currently running sitcom.

Indeed, the TV industry buzz in the last several days has had less to do with whether "The West Wing" will beat out "The Sopranos" for best drama than with how the Emmys will handle Ritter's passing.

"Yes, we are facing a challenge, and we're still trying to figure out what makes sense," Mischer said during a brief break in the controlled frenzy of preparation late in the week.

"Unfortunately this is a year where we lost so many friends and colleagues in the TV industry," Mischer continued. "And there's no one who will be in the house that night who won't be thinking of John. His death was a shock to us all. He was held in such high esteem, and the question is, 'How do we do this?' This is a work in progress, and we're still grappling with how to pay tribute to him. He has to be acknowledged individually in some form."

Ritter, who gained fame as the closeted heterosexual in the racy '70s sitcom "Three's Company," died at a relatively young age of an undetected heart flaw after falling ill on the set of his ABC comedy, "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter."

Making the tribute to Ritter and the deceased more problematic for Mischer is the Emmy's comedic format. In addition to Mac and Stewart, the show will spotlight Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Garrett, Darrell Hammond, George Lopez, Dennis Miller, Conan O'Brien, Garry Shandling, Martin Short and Wanda Sykes. The challenge of trying to touch viewers' funny bones and hearts is weighing on the veteran producer.

"Having made this decision to focus on comedy, how do you get in and out of these moments when you have to make time for a serious tribute? At this point, I'm getting a lot of suggestions from a lot of people. But there's no easy answer, and there's no quick decision that can be made. This is difficult and complicated."

A tribute to Hope, who died in July, had already been planned with the presentation of the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award to Bill Cosby. And the "In Memoriam" segment, in keeping with tradition, will say goodbye not only to people who made their careers in TV, but also some notables who may have had only brief experiences on the small screen. In fact, it's hard to imagine a "necrology" that doesn't include Gregory Peck, Gregory Hines, Nell Carter, Buddy Ebsen, Buddy Hackett, Hume Cronyn, Roone Arledge, Robert Stack and Richard Crenna, among others.

But most of the focus at the moment is on Ritter, whose death has inevitably changed the tone of the Emmys, as well as the new TV season which officially starts Monday. But Mischer, who has produced eight Emmys and numerous other live extravaganzas such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, has to produce a show that at once serves as the TV industry's salute to itself, and as an entertainment program designed to attract many millions of viewers. The juxtaposition of irreverence and wit with appropriate solemnity won't be easy.

Said CBS President Leslie Moonves: "There's no question that everyone in the TV industry is thinking about John. This has cast a pall over the start of the season. His tentacles were so far-reaching, from the '70s to his success today. His son [Jason Ritter] is on one of our shows [the new "Joan of Arcadia"]. Everyone is feeling his loss immensely. It tempers the celebration."

One of the options Mischer was struggling with late in the week was the placement of Ritter's tribute. One consideration was having the tribute surround the more prestigious awards of outstanding comedy series and actor and actress that usually come during the final hour of the ceremony. But making that choice means that audiences expecting a Ritter tribute will have to wait two hours.

"That is just a really long time, and I'm really weighing if that's a good decision," he said.

Bryce Zabel, president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, realized last week that Ritter's death presented a problem for this year's ceremony when he attended the academy's Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 13. (That's where awards are handed out for shows, performers and, mostly, technical categories that aren't presented on the Sunday telecast.)

"People kept coming up to me that night, asking me what we were going to do at the ceremony regarding John Ritter," Zabel said. "That's when I knew we had a problem, and I called Don to discuss it."

Zabel added that while he was planning a special tribute to Ritter, "we also have to weave in tributes for other people. We have to be fair to everyone concerned, to those other families who have also lost loved ones."

Even with all of that, Zabel said he felt the ceremony would not be overwhelmed by the emotion surrounding the death of Ritter and the others.

"If we can get through 9/11, we can get through this," he said.

Don Bellisario, executive producer of CBS' "JAG" and the new drama, "Navy NCIS," agreed. "I don't think this will dampen the awards completely. Obviously there will have to be the tributes. But I think everything will be put into perspective. Death is part of life, it grabs all of us. John would not have wanted his death to dampen the ceremony. He would have wanted the opposite."

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