Somewhere in Punxsutawney, PA, Phil the groundhog is weeping.
Harold Ramis, the brilliant comedic writer, director, and actor, died today at age 69. He suffered from ill health for the last three years and finally succumbed to “complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels, his wife Erica Mann Ramis said. He was 69.”
His astonishing body of work included some of the most iconic Hollywood comedies of all time, including directing Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, producing Multiplicity and Bedazzled, and acting in memorable roles for Stripes, Ghostbusters, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
But it was his writing that got him his first break. His wicked wit and sweet sense of pathos endeared characters like Groundhog Day’s Bill Connors and Caddyshack’s wacky groundskeeper Carl Spackler to audiences. It’s no accident that both characters were played by Bill Murray, who collaborated with Ramis on six projects. Allahpundit expounds on the Ramis-Murray team:
There are endless salutes to the subtle genius of “Groundhog Day” online, from National Review to the Atlantic to the Guardian and beyond. Murray was the perfect Ramis hero, never more so than in GD: Seemingly shallow but with great depth, and tenderness, underneath. How many mainstream comedies can seriously be parsed for hidden religious meanings? That’s the level Ramis had reached. RIP.
Ramis was a key player in the Chicago comedy scene in the 1970s with the advent of the improvisational troupe Second City. Ramis wrote for both the stage shows and the successful TV project SCTV, where he honed his improvisational skills and collaborated with Murray, John Belushi, and other future comedians.
As zany 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 military (“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.
“It’s my shield and my armor in the work I do,” he said. “It’s to keep a cheerful, Zen-like detachment from everything.”
Ramis’ later directorial efforts, starting with “Groundhog Day” and including “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995), “Multiplicity” (1996), “Analyze This” and his “Bedazzled” remake (2000), reflect a spiritual striving, exploring individuals’ struggles with themselves more than outside forces.
Comparing his later to earlier comedies, Ramis told the Tribune: “The content’s different, but it comes from the same place in me, which is to try to point people at some reality or truth.”
He recalled that at the “Analyze This” junket, a writer told him his genre had become “goofy redemption comedy,” to which Ramis responded, “OK, I’ll take that.”
Ramis had been living in Los Angeles since late the ’70s before he returned to Chicago, basing his production company in downtown Highland Park.
“In L.A., you’re much more aware of an artificial pressure, just that you’re in a race of some kind,” Ramis recalled one morning over a veggie egg-white omelet at the coffee shop downstairs from his office. “You know, if you’re not moving forward, you’re dead in the water, because everyone around you is scheming, planning and plotting to advance themselves, often at your expense.
“I’ve compared it to high school: Am I popular? Am I cool? Am I in? Who’s the in crowd? How do I get into that party? These are not things I ever wanted to worry about. Here I’m so liberated from that.”
Like his contemporary John Hughes, whose comedies of teen angst and romance spoke to audiences in special ways, Ramis’ films did more than make us laugh. They were, at bottom, films about the human condition and how all of us manage to muddle through despite life’s challenges.
My favorite Ramis film is one of his first efforts at writing. Meatballs was a sweet, sentimental, uproariously funny film designed to evoke memories of childhood summer-camp experiences. A bit overplayed by Bill Murray as head counselor Tripper Harrison, the movie nevertheless portrayed the mysterious passage from child to young adult in an intelligent, inspiring manner.
It almost seems as if the 1980s has finally died along with Harold Ramis.