Harold Ramis Dead At 69

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Harold Ramis, a writer, actor and director who participated in the creation of some of Hollywood's most funny, vital and downright raucous works of the past 40 years, passed away last evening from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels. He was 69. 

Many kids of the 80s and 90s (myself included) will remember Ramis for his performance as Dr. Egon Spengler, the Ghostbuster with a penchant for collecting spores, molds, and fungus. Ramis' Egon was a deep thinker that played perfectly off of, and grounded, Bill Murray's game-show-host wit, Dan Akroyd's child-like zeal, and Ernie Hudson's no-bullshit demeanor. But Ramis brought a lot more to the world of Ghostbusters than the deadpan Egon, as he was the co-writer of both feature films in that franchise. And in large measure some of his most enduring and important work was as a writer.

The Chicago born and bred Ramis started out as Playboy magazine's joke editor, and began work as an actor with Chicago's Second City, the famed improv group that launched the careers of friends and colleagues John Belushi and Murray, amongst many others. He then became the head writer on the SC Toronto group's seminal sketch show SCTV, which paired him with comedic legends such as John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas. He was also the pen behind Caddyshack, Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes -- a boy's club comedy quartet for the ages.

Ramis actually began to direct features with Caddyshack, a fact that seems to be overlooked by many viewers, simply because the performers in that film overshadow many other elements. But it all came to be at the steady hand of Ramis, someone who had a serious streak for understanding how to humanize the zany. Ramis then teamed up with writer John Hughes on the very first (and best?) National Lampoon's Vacation, eventually directing such films as Analyze This and Multiplicity.

Outside of Ghostbusters, Ramis' perhaps biggest contribution to cinema was writing and directing 1993's Groundhog Day. Featuring Bill Murray in one of his finest performances as a self-involved TV Weatherman who gets stuck living the titular day over and over again until he is able to make some BIG changes, Ramis' story is regarded as one of the greatest, most deft and acutely human American films of the last few decades. In fact, I think its reputation only grows with age (and repeat viewings).

In recent years Ramis chose to put family first, moving back to Chicago in the mid-90s with wife Erica Mann Ramis and their children. He kept involved in the contemporary comedy world by directing episodes of The Office, including "Benihana Christmas", a fan favorite.

If I may speak more personally for a moment... I may not have really understood it at the time, but Ramis had a phenomenal hand in shaping my childhood and my own sense of humor, which started with my first viewing of Ghostbusters at age 3. When I was 10 Groundhog Day came out, and it was one of the first quote unquote "adult films" I truly understood, both for its existential humor and emotional gravitas. 

I woke up this morning a little fuzzy from a late night script reading, ready for a conference call. I checked my email, and... a ton of bricks as the saying goes. But to consider the man's death is to consider his incredibly rich and varied life. While many of Ramis' on screen personas were the straight men to an often wackier lot, there is little doubt that he was a man cut clearly and cleanly from buffoonery of the highest order. In turn Ramis was the man who brought big ideas and high concepts down to earth. He made sense of all the goofiness without ever undermining its importance. In a tweet today, actor Rainn Wilson called him "The Buddha Of Comedy."

Considering his body of work and approach to craft one notices that he was a consummate and gracious collaborator who fully embraced the Second City improv motto of "Yes and..." Speaking in an interview with American Storytellers in 2002, he said of his craft and collaborative spirit: "It's about supporting the other person. And the corollary to that is if you concentrate on making other people look good, then we all have the potential to look good...I've always found that my career happened as a result of a tremendous synergy of all the talented people I've worked with, all helping each other, all connecting, and reconnecting in different combinations."

His legacy will inspire for generations to come.

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  • benu

    An epilogue to my article above:

    Celebrating the life and work of Harold Ramis tonight I had only one title readily available: GHOSTBUSTERS.

    Would have been great to revisit a film or performance I'm not as
    intimately familiar with, but watching the film again for the umpteenth
    time something rather profound struck me. I take GHOSTBUSTERS for
    granted. It has been with me for so long, and survived beyond so much
    pop culture I have abandoned with
    maturity and shifts in taste... and yet the film operates on two fronts:
    One is a film right now, to be enjoyed. The other is coming from a
    place of nostalgia, it is of the film I saw at age 3, at age 8, 10, 12,
    14... each re-watch yielded a new movie, and yet the same movie. And so
    now at 30 -- the film is soon to be 30 itself -- I realize how engrained
    the GHOSTBUSTERS is in me. And yet, I've taken so much of this film for
    granted for so long. I am grateful, no doubt, but because I know the
    film like no other, because of its influence and impact over my
    childhood and sense of humor, it does not operate like any other film I
    know... it kind of runs on auto-pilot. Many of the beats of the film are
    so well known to me that its dramatic tension is stagnant. It's a
    'comfort food' movie if there ever was one.

    With the passing of
    Ramis today, I was able to look at the film with a slightly shifted
    perspective. There are still things in that film that are new to me,
    after all, and a lot of it has to do with Ramis and his performance as
    Egon. Time and time again Egon is positioned not so much as the straight
    man, but as the spring board for jokes... or the safety mat for them to
    fall on. A foreshadowing look, disapproving stare, or deadpan line
    delivery from him often offset the wackier nature of Dan Akroyd and Bill
    Murray. These may be seen as thankless tasks for a performer, but Ramis
    understood how this built a history and rapport between the men.

    Now take for instance any moment director Ivan Reitman needs to clue
    the audience in on the severity of the paranormal situation at hand...
    He cuts to Egon. Because surely if the brains of the Ghostbusters is
    concerned, then something must really be up. Though we've called Akroyd
    the heart of the Ghostbusters ever since Murray bellowed the line, I
    somehow think Ramis may be the true heart. If he's getting emotional
    then we know it's really time to get emotional. Case in point, Egon's
    tense and funny break of character with the line "Your Mother!" directed
    at Walter Peck as the storage facility explodes. He's also the steady
    hand behind much of the team's success. Though it's a team effort that
    couldn't have been done without all four of 'em, Egon comes up with the
    idea for closing the dimensional portal by crossing the streams, and
    thus, saving the day.

    In a lot of ways I think that's how Ramis
    was as an actor, writer and director. He was indeed the consummate
    collaborator who understood the importance each and every part that
    everyone played, and was grateful for that in the most unselfish,
    giving, thankless way. Ramis kept the boat afloat, and as I said earlier
    today in the above, he made sense of all the goofiness,
    without ever undermining its importance.

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