Harold Ramis, Chicago native and the writer or director of many of the greatest comedies of the last 30 years, died Monday after succumbing to a rare illness. He leaves behind a treasure chest of wonderful films, and a major piece of the legacy of some of his generation’s best comedic performers. All those who worship at the altar of Bill Murray would do well to consider how much of his greatest work passed through Ramis' hands.
Ramis’ vast array of credits as writer or director includes “Animal House,” “Groundhog Day,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Back to School,” “Caddyshack,” “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” and the wrongly-maligned “Club Paradise.” All of these have made us laugh, for most more than once, for decades.
Seeing the “Ghostbusters” films are among my most vivid early memories of going to a movie theater. Their soundtracks were the first cassette tapes I ever bought. As a young kid, I’m sure I would have happily guzzled these films up like so much Hi-C Ecto Cooler no matter what actually showed up on screen. As an adult, I continue to love them because they are terrific entertainments for children and grown-ups alike. Somewhat uniquely, Ramis' films were often family-friendly enough to be edited down for television and still retain most of their content and charm. Through cable viewings and movie nights with mom and dad, Ramis may have helped to form the bedrock of an entire generation's sense of humor.
“Groundhog Day,” released in 1993, a fact which has always seemed totally unfathomable (the same year as “Jurassic Park!”) is rightly regarded as Ramis' masterpiece, and by some (myself included) as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Apart from co-writing and directing the film, Ramis also wrote a song for it, and played in a small role. If he doesn’t get authorship of it, I don’t know who does. It’s an elegant, timeless romance that feels plucked from a simpler, slower time. A perfect film, as poetic and beautiful as a comedy can be, and still uproariously funny.
Ramis was a constant presence in movies for more than twenty years, though he didn't always write the movies he directed, and vice versa. He was most frequently credited as a writer, though always in collaboration with someone else (in all his film work, he never obtained a solo writing credit.) This is almost certainly an artifact of his collaborative training in the improv world at Second City. It’s a testament to his skill that his influence on a film can often be hard to pin down.
Along with Murray, he formed working relationships with Rodney Dangerfield, as well as many of his fellow SCTV alums like John Candy. Working from a John Hughes script on “National Lampoon's Vacation,” the two native Chicagoans created an indelible character in Clark Griswold. Like Hughes, Ramis grew dissatisfied with Hollywood and his work waned both in frequency and quality in his later years. Also like Hughes, for most of his life Ramis remained a resident of Chicagoland’s north shore. Chicagoans won't have to look hard to find someone they know who met the man, or at least spotted him (my dad used to see him coming out of one of the tennis clubs in Highland Park). He was 6'2", and hard to miss. By all accounts he remained affable, approachable and, of course, funny. Presumably due to his illness, in recent years he was less visible. Like the man himself, most of Ramis' best films were good-natured and winning stories, a touch of raunchiness and naughty behavior notwithstanding.
With its receiving generation now all grown up and prone to penning windbaggy think-pieces, “Ghostbusters” has been held up by some as an early example of the nerd-fetishizing entertainment that has become so en vogue in recent years. But “nerds," as such, though often present in Ramis’ work (think Flounder in “Animal House,” or his own Egon Spangler in “Ghostbusters,”) were not usually delineated as a group distinct from other misfits. The guys in “Animal House” and “Stripes” were losers and freaks and wash-outs, but they were never concerned with their own "nerd" status, and neither were the filmmakers. Good guys vs. Bad guys, not Nerds vs. Cool People.
Like any filmmaker with a prolonged career, his name wound up on plenty of duds as well (“Rover Dangerfield” anyone?) but when working in a subjective medium like comedy, this is all but par for the course. In a film world that too rarely glorifies comedic auteurs, Ramis was one of the true unsung giants, in front of the camera and behind. If I had to give back all the laughs his films have given me over the years, and will always give me, I would be a far less happy man.