February 24, 2014
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters (1984)
If they had a Cooperstown for comedic filmmakers, Harold Ramis would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Whether it was as a writer, producer, director, actor or some combination thereof, Ramis had a hand in some of the most successful, enduring, influential and flat-out funny comedies of the last half-century.
“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) changed the face of modern comedy.
“Caddyshack” (1980) and “Stripes” (1981) are two of most quoted films of all time. Movie fans who were born a decade after those films were released can recite lines such as, “Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper…It’s in the hole!” and, “No, we aren’t homosexual, but we are willing to learn.”
“Ghostbusters” is one of the great blockbuster comedies of all time, with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ramis serving as one of the best onscreen trios since the Marx Brothers in their prime.
Nearly every list of all-time best comedies includes “Groundhog Day” (1993), an instant classic that also appears on lists of the best movies of all time, regardless of genre.
And those are just some of the highlights of a legacy that puts Ramis near the very top of all-time great Chicago filmmakers.
Ramis died early Monday from complications of a rare disease known as autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. For months there had been talk in the film community that Ramis was very ill and might not survive, but the news of his death at the age of 69 still comes as a tough blow to those who worked with him, the filmmakers that were inspired by him and the millions of movie fans that loved his work.
Few movies inspire as much affection as these. People don’t say, “I kinda liked ‘Caddyshack,’ or “ ‘Groundhog Day’ was all right.” More often it’s, “I’ve seen ‘Animal House’ a dozen times,” or, “My teenage kids love ‘Caddyshack’ as much as I did.”
Headline from a piece by blogger Rebecca Pahle on Monday: “Harold Ramis is Dead, and I Hate Everything.” Yep.
Ramis’ films had that great “repeatability” factor. If you’re clicking around late at night and “Stripes” is on, you tell yourself you’re just going to stick around for a minute or two — and you wind up watching it all the way through to the end credits, once again.
A graduate of Senn High School and Washington University in St. Louis, Ramis did some freelance writing for the old Chicago Daily News and Playboy magazine before he joined the Second City troupe in the early 1970s. He worked with John Belushi and Bill Murray, among others, on the legendary “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” one of my addictions as a kid.
By the late 1970s, Ramis was embarking on one of the most remarkable streaks any comedic filmmaker has ever known, starting with “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in 1978 and continuing through “Groundhog Day” in 1993. Not that his career ended there; those were just the prime years. Ramis continued to direct quality films such as “Multiplicity” (1996), “Analyze That” (2002) and the very underrated “The Ice Harvest” (2005), while also acting in films such as “As Good As It Gets” (1997), “High Fidelity” (2000) and “Knocked Up” (2007).
It was my great privilege when Ramis graciously agreed to fill in as a guest co-host on “Ebert & Roeper” while Roger Ebert was recovering from surgery. He was easygoing and friendly, and he offered some sharp insights on the movies we were reviewing that week.
Most of the other guest critics — especially those in the business — would exhale after a taping session and talk about how difficult it was to criticize other filmmakers, and how easy the show looked on TV when in reality it was a challenge to summarize one’s opinions and engage in a lively debate while keeping one eye on the clock. When Ramis finished taping, he just smiled and said, “You call that working?”
As an on-camera presence, Ramis was comfortable in his role as a straight man, a set-up guy. When John Candy delivers a monologue about how he “swallows a lot of aggression, and a lot of pizza!” in “Stripes,” it’s Ramis sitting next to him, making exaggerated facial expressions as Candy rambles on. It’s pure comedic gold.
Ramis moved back to Chicago in 1996, but even when he was living on the West Coast, we always felt like he was one of our own. There’ll never be another like him.