HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014)

HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014)

A Multitalented Comedian in Acting, Writing and Directing
Written By Eric Plaut

If you grew up in the 1980’s, you might have seen Harold Ramis first perform on the big screen in Stripes (1981), which he also co-wrote.  Ramis portrayed Russell Ziskey, an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher who ends up joining the Army with his down-and-out friend John Winger—played by Bill Murray. 
Russell, as a new ESL instructor, works with immigrants who recently arrived in the United States.  On the first day, he asks if any of his students if any of them knows any English.  One man raises his hand and responds with: “Son-of-bi--h!  Sh%^!”  His classmates repeat the profanities he’d just spoken.   Ziskey doesn’t respond to any of this as the scene ends, though we all know that maybe the poor guy is in the wrong profession.

However, Ramis’s brainy guys never received the heartache or embarrassment that many of his comic predecessors endured.  His characters never wound up receiving the pie in the face, tearing their hair out or falling into the water fully clothed.  Harold portrayed very likable guys such as Russell Ziskey (Stripes) and Dr. Egon Spengler (in the Ghostbusters films).  In his other films, as a writer and a director, he would occasionally make a cameo appearance as a doctor or society figure.  Ramis tended to be a jack-of-all-trades in film comedies when it came to writing, directing and acting.  He wasn’t like his Ghostbusters persona who only seemed to be into “spores, mold and fungus.”
Harold Allen Ramis was born on the Far North Side of Chicago on November 21, 1944.  He had an older brother Steve.  Their parents were Ruth and Nathan Ramis.  Nathan Ramis ran the Ace Food and Liquor Mart on the West Side of the city. 

Harold graduated from Chicago’s Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School in 1958 and from Senn High School in 1962.  (The Ramis brothers joined Senn’s fencing team.  Steve Ramis was a city champion during the 1960’s.)  Other well-known Senn alumni—from other eras—included: actor Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles); director William Friedkin (The Exorcist); and Olympians Annette Rogers and Fritz Pollard, Jr.
After he graduated from Senn, Harold Ramis studied at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).  During his time in college, he worked at one point in a local mental institution where he claimed it “helped prepare him into working with actors and as a director.”  Harold earned a degree in English Literature at WUSTL in 1967.  Ramis later earned an honorary Doctor of Arts from WUSTL in 1993 and served for eight years on their Board of Directors.
Upon his return to the Windy City, Harold Ramis worked a number of odd jobs before he delved into comedy.  He once worked as a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public School system.  Other jobs Harold had during the 1960's included: writing and editing Playboy's Party Jokes and freelancing articles for the Chicago Daily News.

In 1968, Harold received a freelance assignment to write an article about Chicago's famous Second City improvisational troupe.  When he was over at Second City, a moment of epiphany came over him.  "I can do (comedy)," he said as his described eureka moment in an interview with People magazine.  "I'm that funny!"

Harold Ramis would start to make a name for him in comedy between the late 1970's and the early 1980's.  And the world of film comedy would forever be grateful to him, his unique sense of humor and comic perception, his unforgettable casts and—of course—all of the original material that emerged from this genius.

Harold Ramis joined the Second City troupe in 1969.  His comedy, which he started writing as a college student, was based on the parody of two of the Marx Brothers.  Groucho’s banter and one-liners and Harpo’s pantomime, which tended to poke fun at high society, influenced Ramis.  Harold eventually used a similar tactic in many of his writings and directorial features.  He dubbed it as the “slobs vs. the snobs”.  As with the Marx Brothers and other comedians, Harold tended to favor the underdog and chastise the upper echelons of society in his works.
Harold briefly left Second City, but he returned to the show in 1972.  His contemporaries at Second City included Joe Flaherty, Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill and Joel Murray’s brother), Dave Rasche, Judy Morgan and Ann Ryerson.  Harold knew that he could never be as loud-mouthed or outgoing as one of his fellow performers.  The late John Belushi would and did everything to get the laughs no matter what.  Harold just stuck to being John’s foil at Second City.
The Second City improvisational troupe was founded in 1959 in Chicago.  Its nickname derived from a 1952 article in The New Yorker, which dubbed Chicago as the “Second City”.  Elaine May and the late Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and Charlie Wilson’s War, were the founding members.  Countless comedians we’ve known and loved for almost six decades have walked through the Chicago location.  They included Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Hunt, Tina Fey and John’s brother Jim Belushi.  Second City alum that passed on included Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Chris Farley and John Candy.
No matter what, these luminaries continued to shine on their numerous ventures following their brief stops at this legendary Chicago establishment.  Second City proved to be a stepping stone for those wanting to pursue TV and movies down the road.  We have seen Second City alumni on Toronto’s SCTV, on Home Box Office’s Not Necessarily the News and at the comic pinnacle of television for almost the past forty years—on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.  The laughs, as well as opportunities, seemed endless in the comedy world.
Harold’s gift of writing had gone back to his days as a student at Washington University, where he wrote comedy skits.  As mentioned before, his talents paid off when he began writing articles for the Chicago Daily News along with an intro job—as the Editor for Playboy’s “Party Jokes”.  Harold’s eyes opened up even more when he’d written a piece about the Second City comedy troupe for the Daily News.  An opportunity knocked for him, and Harold soon studied and took classes at this fabled Chicago institution.
The ball continued to roll for Harold Ramis.  In 1974, he moved to New York City to work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour.  Harold’s cast-mates from the Radio Hour were well-known in their own right.  Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Harold’s occasional co-star Bill Murray helped Harold bring the laughs to the Big Apple.
Two years later Harold headed north to Toronto to become the eventual head writer for Second City Television (SCTV).  SCTV contained skits and routines similar to Saturday Night Live.  Harold also performed a variety of characters including a SCTV station manager named Moe Green.  Fellow Second City alum from Chicago performing on SCTV included Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and the late John Candy.  Other actors who worked on SCTV included Robin Duke, Martin Short and Dave Thomas. 
SCTV moved to California a few years later.  According to the Chicago Tribune, the show’s creators Andrew Alexander and the late Bernard Sahlins moved all of the writers to the West Coast.  Their reason: they didn’t want to lose Harold and their creative staff.  Good choice!!!
Harold co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House with Chris Miller and the late Doug Kenney.  The 1978 classic starred Karen Allen and the late John Belushi and took place at the fictional Faber College.  Harold’s theory of the “snobs versus the slobs” played out in Animal House.  John Landis directed this movie on fraternity hijinks, which was filmed on the campus at the University of Oregon.
For over the next three decades, Harold continued with his writing talent.  He teamed up with Len Blum and Dan Goldberg to write 1979’s Meatballs and Stripes.  (Janis Allen co-wrote Meatballs alongside Harold, Blum and Goldberg.)  Ivan Reitman yielded his directing chops to Bill Murray and an amazing cast for these two films.
The laughs kept on coming!  Harold served as head writer for the 1982 Rodney Dangerfield TV special It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me.  He then partnered up with Dan Aykroyd to write the first two Ghostbusters films which were released in 1984 and 1989.  In the summer of 1986, three films Harold wrote were released to movie theatres: Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield and Sally Kellerman (co-written with Dangerfield, Will Porter and five others); Club Paradise with the late Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole (co-written with Harry Shearer, Brian Doyle-Murray and three others); and Armed and Dangerous with Eugene Levy, Meg Ryan and the late John Candy—which Harold wrote with Brian Grazer, James Keach and the late P.J. Torokvei.
The 1990’s and the new millennium were just as productive for Harold Ramis.  He co-wrote the classic Groundhog Day (1993) with Danny Rubin, which was sent to the National Film Registry to be preserved in 2007.  Harold worked on Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002) with Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) and Kenneth Lonergan.  Both films starred Robert DeNiro, Billy Crystal and Lisa Kudrow.  Peter Steinfield assisted with writing Analyze That.
Bedazzled hit theatres in 2000, which was a remake of the 1967 film that starred and was written by the late Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.  Ramis, Tolan and the late Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) wrote the 2000 script that starred Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley.  The Ghostbusters franchise continued into the new millennium with numerous shorts and video games.  Its sequels could be due to the success of the 1984 blockbuster and two successful cartoon series that followed this classic film.  Also, an Italian version of Groundhog Day—called Stork Day—was released in 2004.
Harold Ramis debuted as director with the 1980 film Caddyshack.  He had co-written the up-and-coming classic with Brian Doyle-Murray and the late Doug Kenney.  The movie starred Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and the late Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield.  Brian Doyle-Murray played Lou Loomis while Doug Kenney played an uncredited dinner guest of Dangerfield’s.  Caddyshack was based on a concept that Harold dubbed as “the slobs versus the snobs”.  The film took place on a golf course down in Florida.  Danny Noonan (played by Homeland’s Michael O’Keefe) and his family were based on Brian and Bill Murray’s family!
Due to his Second City background, Ramis allowed his actors to ad-lib.  Bill Murray, who portrayed the groundskeeper Carl Spackler, was notorious at trying out new material as the camera was literally rolling!  Rodney Dangerfield also enjoyed improvising while Ted Knight preferred to stick to the script.  The onscreen tension between Dangerfield and Knight, as the snooty Al Czervik and the hot-tempered Judge Smalls, worked well because it was real!
Three years later, Ramis directed National Lampoon’s Vacation from a script written by the late John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).  The film depicted a Chicago couple and their two children taking a funny—though disastrous—road-trip 2000 miles west from their house to California and the fictional Walley World theme-park.  Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo starred as the accident-prone Clark Griswold and his long-suffering wife Ellen, who still stands by her beloved “Sparky” after all these tumultuous years.  Harold’s voice can be heard as the huh-yucking Marty Moose, Walley World’s beloved mascot.  His daughter Violet portrayed Daisy Mabel, one of the Griswolds’ young cousins.
During the 1990’s, Harold directed four films: Groundhog Day (1993) with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell; Stuart Saves His Family (1995); Multiplicity (1996) with Michael Keaton and Andie McDowell; and Analyze This (1999).  Groundhog Day, though filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, was depicted in Pennsylvania.  Harold partially based this movie from a concept from his Second City days.  Called “Rewind”, a scene or act would start over as someone in the cast or audience would shout out the word.
Harold directed four more movies during the next decade: Bedazzled (2000), which was a remake of the 1967 film starring Raquel Welch and the late Dudley Moore and Peter Cook; Analyze That (2002), the sequel to Analyze This; The Ice Harvest (2005), in which shows on DVD a video-shoot with alternate endings; and 2009’s Year One.  He also alternated his directorial chops to the small screen.  Ramis directed the 2007 TV movie Atlanta, which was written by Mad About You’s Paul Reiser, and four episodes of The Office which starred Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson and Mindy Kaling.
Harold Ramis was best known for portraying the intellectuals in movies.  He was the voice of reason wearing his trademark glasses.  His calming voice kept us at ease during whatever comedic storm was brewing on screen.  Harold’s characters were people that one could identify with.  He was the voice-of-reason who could help his friends out of trouble though—for the most part—not win the leading lady’s heart in the end.  His occasional co-star Bill Murray was known for the latter.
Film director Ivan Reitman cast Harold opposite of Bill Murray in Stripes.  He felt that Harold, who had co-written the zany script with Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, would work well against Bill.  Fortunately, Reitman got both actors to shine together.  Though this Army comedy was originally had Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong for the leads, it was the beginning of a legendary partnership between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.
Three years later, Harold’s other iconic character premiered on the big screen—as Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters.  He co-wrote the script with Dan Aykroyd, who portrayed Ray Stantz, one of four scientists (Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson rounded of the quartet) who seek to rid New York City of ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ivan Reitman once again helmed the camera as director.  Ghostbusters became the highest-grossing comedy of 1984.
Harold made the occasional rare appearance on the screen.  Some other films he acted in include: Baby Boom (1987); Airheads (1994); As Good As It Gets (1997); and Knocked Up (2007).  Harold also reprised his role as Egon in 1989’s Ghostbusters II.  He seemed to prefer to work behind the scenes as either a writer, director or both.  Outside of Russell Ziskey in Stripes and as the good doctor, Egon Spengler, Harold made cameos in his films Groundhog Day as Bill Murray’s neurologist and 2009’s Year One as Adam.  He also lent his voice in television, movies and the Ghostbusters video game.
Harold Ramis passed away on February 24, 2014 at age 69.  His passing was sad and a shock to his family, friends and fans throughout the world.  The cause of death was autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis (AIV), a rare illness that enlarges the blood vessels.  Harold had battled AIV for four years.
Harold Ramis is survived by: his wife Erica Mann; their two sons Julian and Daniel; his daughter Violet Stiel (from his first marriage to Anne Plotkin); two grandchildren and his brother Steve Ramis.  He leaves behind a unique body of work of original material.  USA Today described Harold as a “triple threat as a writer, director and actor” yet he also served other roles including producer and as a songwriter.  He wrote the songs “Weatherman” for Groundhog Day and “The Dolphin Song” for 2000’s Bedazzled.  Innovators in comedy who benefited in Harold’s comedies have included Judd Apatow (who once interviewed Harold for his high-school radio program in Michigan) and Peter and Bobby Farrelly.
Harold received two inductions late in his life.  He became a member of the St. Louis (MO) Walk of Fame in 2004 and a year later the Distinguished Screenwriter’s Award at the Austin (Texas) Film Festival.  He will posthumously receive the lifetime award for the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, which is run by the Writer’s Guild of America.  His friend and co-star Bill Murray paid tribute to Harold at the 86th Annual Academy Awards last March.
There have been other happenings in film since Harold’s passing.  Harold’s Ghostbusters co-stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd (Elwood from The Blues Brothers), Ernie Hudson (The Crow) and Sigourney Weaver (the talented Ms. Ripley from the Alien films) donned the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s annual “Reunions” issue last November.  Director Ivan Reitman (of the first two Ghostbusters films) and Annie Potts (Designing Women) joined the stars on the photo shoot, complete with Ghostbusters outfits.  While Ghostbusters 3 is in the works, Reitman opted out as director following Harold’s passing.  The new film, slated for release next year, contains a quartet of women comics as Ghostbusters which include Bridemaids’ stars Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.  Paul Feig (Bridemaids, The Heat) is directing the third edition while Dan Aykroyd serves as an executive producer for the film.
Also, a new Vacation movie was released in July of 2015, which is dedicated to Harold’s memory.  The seventh in the series, the most recent film is co-written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and Freaks and Geeks alum John Francis Daley.  The Hangover’s Ed Helms and Married with Children’s Christina Applegate portray Rusty and Debbie Griswold, who take their two sons on a road-trip to the closing of the theme park Walley World, repeating the disastrous journey from over three decades ago.  Leslie Mann (Knocked Up) plays Rusty’s sister Audrey; Thor’s Chris Hemsworth is her husband Stone Crandall.  Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprise their roles as Rusty and Audrey’s parents—Clark and Ellen Griswold.
Harold Ramis left an indelible mark on the world of comedy.  As an actor, he was known for the intellectual onscreen as in Stripes and Ghostbusters I and II.  (Harold reprised his roles as Russell and Egon on occasion.)  Usually sporting his trademark glasses, Ramis symbolized the voice of reason in each film he appeared in.  Harold may not have been the leading man though his fans loved him for being himself.  His original comedies—whether he had written, directed or acted in—made a lasting impression on his fans, his co-stars and those who are inspired by him.  We tip our comedic hats off to you, Harold—you are missed!

Sources on this tribute to Harold Ramis can be found on his articles on the Wikipedia Web site (wikipedia.org) or the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com).  I also obtained details on Harold and his life through two books that I highly recommend any film enthusiast or historian:

Bernstein, Arnie.  Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies.  Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998

Patinkin, Sheldon.  The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater.  Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2000

Sheldon Patinkin, who passed away last year, was one of Second City’s first directors and ran the Theater Department at Columbia College in Chicago.  His cousin is Mandy Patinkin, who played “Inigo Montoya” in The Princess Bride.

Second City alum Robert Klein narrates this book on CD.



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