February 25

Harold Ramis, beloved actor, writer, director, dead at 69

He gave us such comedies as ‘Groundhog Day,’ ‘Analyze This,’ ‘Ghostbusters,' 'Animal House' and 'Caddyshack.'

By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune

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click image to enlarge

Film director Harold Ramis stands on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

2009 File Photo/Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

‘I WOULDN’T BE ANY HUGE COMEDY STAR’

The son of Ruth and Nathan Ramis, who owned Ace Food & Liquor Mart on the West Side before moving the store and family to Rogers Park, Ramis graduated from Senn High School and Washington University in St. Louis. For his first professional writing gig, he contributed freelance arts stories to the Chicago Daily News in the mid-1960s. He also wrote and edited Playboy magazine’s “Party Jokes” before and during his Second City days.

When, after some time off, he returned to Second City in 1972 to act alongside a relative newcomer in the cast, Ramis said he came to a major realization.

“The moment I knew I wouldn’t be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time,” he said in a 1999 Chicago Tribune interview. “When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh or to make a point on stage, the language he would use, how physical he was, throwing himself literally off the stage, taking big falls, strangling other actors, I thought: I’m never going to be this big. How could I ever get enough attention on a stage with guys like this?

“I stopped being the zany. I let John be the zany. I learned that my thing was lobbing in great lines here and there, which would score big and keep me there on the stage.”

Ramis would become the calm center of storms brewed by fellow actors, playing the bushy-haired, low-key wisecracker to Bill Murray’s troublemaker in “Stripes” and the most scientific-minded “Ghostbuster.” Later roles included a sympathetic doctor in “As Good as It Gets” (1997) and the charming dad role in “Knocked Up” (2007), which Apatow said was almost all improvised.

Sahlins, who died last June, said he knew from the start that Ramis “would be an important factor in American comedy. He has all the skills and abilities to be funny and to write funny, but he also is a leader, a very nice guy. He was always looked up to, in Second City to being head writer at ‘SCTV.’ He was never separate from anybody. He was always one of the boys, but he was the best boy.”

Ramis followed Belushi from Second City to New York City to work with him plus fellow Second City cast member Murray (who would collaborate with Ramis on six movies) on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Those three plus Gilda Radner also performed in a National Lampoon stage show produced by Ivan Reitman, who went on to produce “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and to direct such Ramis scripts as “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II” (1989).

“I always thought he was a very talented writer who always had a very perceptive and intelligent point of view about the material,” Reitman told the Tribune in 1999. “He managed to get the people to speak in a realistic way but still found something funny in their voices.”

Apatow said he was inspired not just by the spirit of Ramis’ movies but also his frequent collaborations with the same funny people.

“We noticed this group of friends who were making comedy together – all the ‘SCTV’ people and ‘Saturday Night Live’ people and ‘National Lampoon’ people – and that seemed the most wonderful community you could ever be a part of,” said Apatow, who has developed his own group of regular collaborators. “In addition to wanting to be comics, we also wanted to make comedies with our friends.”

CREATING REBELS

As anarchic as Ramis’ early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the Army (“Stripes”). After the collapse of his first marriage and the flop of his 1986 comedy “Club Paradise” (with greedy developers as the institutional villain), the Jewish-raised Ramis immersed himself in Zen Buddhism.

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