Feature

Harold Ramis, 1944–2014

The filmmaker who made comedy smart

The young actor Harold Ramis saw where his strengths lay in 1972 while working at Second City, Chicago’s legendary improvisational comedy troupe. “The moment I knew I wouldn’t be any huge comedy star was when I got onstage with John Belushi for the first time,” he later recalled. “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 onstage.”

That approach paid off spectacularly in Ramis’s “incomparable work of seminal comedies from the late-20th century,” said The Guardian (U.K.). His “anarchic, freewheeling comic style” owed something to his early love of the Marx Brothers, and perhaps also to “a brief post-college job working at a Missouri mental hospital.” Ghostbusters (1984), which he co-wrote and acted in as the inimitable Dr. Egon Spengler, became one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. Groundhog Day (1993), which he directed and co-wrote, is widely considered to be “unsurpassably brilliant,” with its story of a TV weatherman doomed to live the same day over and over conveying a message about life with real philosophical and spiritual depth.

Ramis was the son of a couple who owned and ran a neighborhood grocery store in Chicago, said the Chicago Tribune. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, but returned to Chicago in the mid-’60s to write arts stories for the Chicago Daily News and the Party Jokes section in Playboy. He joined Second City in 1969 and soon became a leader of the troupe, which then included Belushi and Bill Murray, heeding “the Second City edict to work at the top of one’s intelligence.” He co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), which made Belushi a star, and Meatballs (1979), and acted alongside Murray in Stripes (1981). Ramis’s directorial debut, Caddyshack (1980), became a cult classic, showing—like his later work, such as Analyze This (1999)—a “combination of smart and gut-bustingly funny” that made him an inspiration for a new generation of filmmakers and actors.

“Ramis’s work broadly represents America,” said The Washington Post. “His films landed in that fertile middle ground somewhere between sophisticated and slapstick, outrageous and relatable.” Ramis once said that in all his films, “the common man’’ triumphs over the powerful. That’s why they’ll remain classics.

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