UPDATED: R.I.P. Harold Ramis

UPDATED: R.I.P. Harold Ramis

According to the Chicago Tribune, actor/writer/director/Ghostbuster Harold Ramis has died at the age of 69, following complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that affects the swelling of blood vessels. Ramis’ impact on pop culture simply cannot be overstated: Besides his starring roles in movies such as Ghostbusters and Stripes, Ramis wrote the screenplays for and directed some of the funniest, most beloved films of the past 30 years, including Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation, Meatballs, and Groundhog Day. Anyone who enjoys comedy mourns him today. 

With his owlish appearance and dry crackle of a voice, Ramis usually played the more cerebral kind of smartass, whose deadpan witticisms and perpetual looks of wry bemusement offered a quiet counterpoint to more extroverted, goofball antics of his costars. This was a supportive technique he learned at Chicago’s Second City, where, after a stint writing and editing jokes for Playboy, he began studying improv and performing with John Belushi and Bill Murray, whose huge character pieces and physical performances he knew he could never hope to match—and wisely he didn’t try. Knowing that every comedy troupe needs someone to ground it, Ramis carved out a niche for himself as the crucial, low-key foil who made the goofballs work.

After relocating to New York with Belushi and Murray to do The National Lampoon Radio Hour, Ramis also became part of the live National Lampoon Show with Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, and Joe Flaherty. While half of that cast split to join the first season of Saturday Night Live, Ramis was called into the meetings that would lead to the birth of SCTV, taking on a role as head writer for most of the first two seasons and appearing intermittently on screen.

During SCTV’s rocky third season transition, Ramis dropped out (along with John Candy and Catherine O’Hara) and set about pursuing a movie career. His first feature screenplay, co-written with National Lampoon’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, was Animal House, the smash hit that made John Belushi a bona fide star, and set the stage for generations of raunchier and raunchier comedies to follow. Ramis’ next co-writing credit, on 1979’s Meatballs, marked his first movie with Murray and director Ivan Reitman. It inspired its own franchise legacy—not to mention generations of losers who embraced the film’s timeless message that it just doesn’t matter.

Ramis made his directorial debut on Caddyshack, another tale of slobs versus snobs directly descended from Animal House, this time set at a tony golf club. Ramis had actually worked as a caddy as a teen, as had the film’s stars Bill and Brian-Doyle Murray, and he drew from those memories for many of the characters and scenes (including the one where Rodney Dangerfield nails Ted Knight’s nuts with a golf ball). His love of improv—and some of his costars’ willingness to embrace that—led to the film being gradually overtaken by Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, as Ramis, to the irritation of some of the more formal actors, let them run wild. Scenes like Murray’s “Cinderella speech” were filmed totally off the cuff, while the moment where Chase’s golf pro meets Murray’s addled groundskeeper was added in last minute, as a way of bringing the feuding SNL stars together. Ramis’ rambling improvised style would prove to be an influence on whole generations of comedies to follow.

Ramis’ second directorial effort reunited him with both National Lampoon and Chevy Chase: Vacation, based on a John Hughes short story, took Ramis’ gibes at institutional Americana on the road, tracking a suburban clan as they attempt to have an old-fashioned family road trip to Disney World stand-in Wallyworld (where Ramis himself provided the voice of Marty Moose). Like everything else Ramis touched in the early ’80s, it was a hit that remains an enduring classic, leading to endless sequels, talks of reboots, and other attempts to recapture its magic.

In 1981, Ramis made his film acting debut opposite Murray in Stripes, a film he also-co-wrote, playing Murray’s pal who gets conned by his charisma into joining the Army, as well as doing a lot of other dumb shit that only Bill Murray could talk you into. Ramis’ introduction to his troop—a speech about how he’s a pacifist who, if they ever get into heavy combat, will be “right behind you guys every step of the way”—is a deadpan masterpiece, as is his scene with a recruitment officer.

While Ramis’ plans to adapt A Confederacy Of Dunces with John Belushi fell apart in the wake of Belushi’s death in 1982, he rebounded in a big Twinkie-sized way with Ghostbusters, a film that Dan Aykroyd originally intended for himself, Belushi, John Candy, and Eddie Murphy.  Ramis and Aykroyd completely retooled the movie in a matter of weeks, changing Belushi’s lead, Dr. Venkman role to fit Bill Murray—and giving him plenty of room to play—and taking on the other two leads themselves.

Aykroyd’s genuine beliefs in the paranormal are, at this point, well documented, and in retrospect, it’s obvious that combining Aykroyd’s wild ideas with Ramis’ more human approach is the key to Ghostbusters’ comedy. And much like Aykroyd played the guy who enthusiastically rattles off wild-eyed monologues about metallurgy, Ramis played the Ghostbusters’ grounding center Dr. Egon Spengler—the true embodiment of the detached, terse scientist, the kind of guy who collects spores, molds, and fungus as a hobby.

Ghostbusters was another smash hit, spawning a still-churning franchise of cartoon spinoffs, video games, and merchandise, and leading to a sequel in 1989. Talk of a third Ghostbusters film has been around for years now, with Ramis handing off writing duties to Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg and saying the original Ghostbusters—minus Bill Murray, who still refuses to take part—would appear only in a “mentor capacity,” in minor roles. At last report, Aykroyd was still adamant that the film would be made, as he has been almost every time he does an interview. It’s uncertain as of yet whether he’ll finally relent on that now.

After an amazing 1980s run, which also included partnering again with Rodney Dangerfield (and a young Robert Downey Jr.) and heading back to campus for Back To School, Ramis hit an inevitable downslope with 1986’s Club Paradise, a film in which the SCTV cast reunion of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Robin Duke, and Rick Moranis is unfortunately overshadowed by lackluster performances from Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole. Ramis’ next screenplay credit, Armed And Dangerous, also featured SCTV stars Levy and John Candy, as well as a young-and-adorable Meg Ryan; though beloved by a certain generation that watched it 100 times on cable, it wasn’t a hit. Ramis also spent more time acting during this period, starring as Diane Keaton’s unsympathetic boyfriend in Baby Boom and as Mark Harmon’s old childhood pal in the mawkish Stealing Home, two roles that had little in common with his talents.

Once again, Ramis came back in a major way by reuniting with Bill Murray on Groundhog Day, another high-concept film—about a man stuck in a temporal loop—that was again grounded in Ramis’ very human comedy, as well as his own interests in Buddhism. Though he and Murray reportedly had a falling out during its production, the end result of their contentious labor is undeniable: Groundhog Day remains as conducive to revisits as Phil’s endless day in Gobbler’s Knob, full of moments that veer deftly between sardonic and sentimental that, fittingly, can only begin to be truly appreciated on repeat.

Ramis’ film career after Groundhog Day included genuine, if far less lasting hits—like the Michael Keaton clone comedy Multiplicity, and the Analyze This/Analyze That films with Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro—as well as some quirky, yet mostly failed experiments, like the film noir pastiche The Ice Harvest, the Brendan Fraser/Elizabeth Hurley-starring remake of Bedazzled, and the adaptation of Al Franken’s SNL skit, Stuart Saves His Family. Many of these films seemed to echo Groundhog Day’s story of men, often under extraordinary circumstances, striving to achieve a sort of self-betterment—a far cry from the up-the-academy spirit of the movies Ramis had made as a young man. Around 1996, that same search for centeredness led him to leave L.A. for Chicago, slowing his movie output considerably.

For a long stretch, Ramis was mostly seen on screen, popping up in small roles in movies like Airheads, Love Affair, As Good As It Gets, Orange County, and The Last Kiss. Judd Apatow—an avowed fan who studied the ramshackle spirit of Ramis’ films closely, and mirrored Ramis in creating his own go-to comedy gang—cast him in two of his final on-screen roles, in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Knocked Up. As Seth Rogen’s loving, easygoing dad in the latter, Ramis improvised most of his dialogue, and the result was one of the movie’s most genuinely sweet moments, and one of film’s great father-son talks.

After directing a few episodes for The Office, Ramis partnered with two of that show’s writers on what would be his final movie, 2009’s Year One. The Apatow-produced ancient history spoof was poorly received, and its zaniness owes far less to Ramis’ sensibilities than that of Jack Black. Still, whatever your feelings about Year One, it seems destined to be the “Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy” in an otherwise-unassailable career.

On a personal note, though I never met the man, I have to say I would not be who I am without Harold Ramis. As a child playing Ghostbusters with my friends, I always claimed Egon (without objection, I might add), finding myself instantly attracted to Ramis’ style of wry, detached witticisms (and relating to his social awkwardness). I was raised on Ramis’ muttering-wiseass version of rebellion in movies like that and Stripes, and I spent my formative years having my brain shaped by the sarcastic banter he created; furthermore, Groundhog Day, a movie about the struggle of achieving enlightenment mostly by being less of a wiseass all the time, is probably the most spiritual text I’ve ever embraced. All told, I doubt I’m alone today in feeling the loss of Harold Ramis as more than just a “comedy influence,” or as someone who entertained and will continue to entertain us. He was a crucial, if often quiet presence in a lot of our lives. He was the guy who propped up all of us goofballs, and made us work. 

Filed Under: Film

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