Monday, February 24, 2014

Godspeed Harold Ramis

Director, writer, and actor Harold Ramis died today at the age of 69. The cause was complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He left behind a body of work that included Animal House, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day.

Harold Ramis was born on 21 November 1944 in Chicago. His parents, Ruth and Nathan Ramis, owned and operated Ace Food & Liquor Mart on Chicago's West Side. He graduated from Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Following his graduation he worked for a time as a mental health orderly at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. It was in Chicago that he first emerged as a freelance writer, contributing articles to the now defunct Chicago Daily News. He went onto edit and write the "party jokes" section of Playboy magazine. It was while he was with Playboy that he made his television debut, on the programme Playboy After Dark.

It was in 1969 that he became part of the legendary improvisational comedy troupe Second City. He would leave Second City for a time before returning in 1972. In 1973 Mr. Ramis would join John Belushi and Bill Murray (both Second City alumni) to work on the radio show The National Lampoon Hour. He also appeared in the stage revue The National Lampoon Show, which also featured John Belushi, Bill Murray,  Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner among others. During the Seventies he also participated in the video collective known as TVTV.

It was in 1976 that the television show spin off of Second City, SCTV, debuted. Harold Ramis served as both the head writer and a performer on SCTV. SCTV ran for three years and while SCTV would not see the lasting success of its contemporary, Saturday Night Live, it developed a cult following that has lasted to this day. Harold Ramis also wrote the TVTV specials TVTV Looks at the Academy AwardsThe TVTV Show, and TVTV Goes to the Superbowl, all in 1976. It was in 1978 that he made what could be considered his breakthrough, as one of the writers on Animal House (with Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller). While Animal House received mixed reviews upon its release, it proved to be a hit at the box office. It has since then become regarded as one of the best comedies of its era.

Harold Ramis followed the success of Animal House with two more screenplays, Meatballs in 1979 (co-written by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, and Janis Allen) and Caddyshack in 1980 (co-written by  Brian Doyle-Murray and  Douglas Kenney). Caddyshack also marked Harold Ramis' directorial debut. Like Animal House before it, Caddyshack received mixed reviews upon its release but is more highly regarded now.

The Eighties would see Harold Ramis continue his success. He co-wrote Stripes (1981) with Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, and starred in the film alongside Bill Murray. He also wrote episodes of the short lived SCTV Network as well as appearing in several episodes. He directed National Lampoon's Vacation (1983). What may have been his biggest success came in 1984. Ghostbusters was co-written by Harold Ramis and Dan Akroyd. It starred Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, and Harold Ramis. The film would prove incredibly successful, becoming a franchise that would produce two separate animated cartoon series, video games, comic books, and a great deal of merchandise. Mr. Ramis reprised his role as Egon in its sequel, Ghostbusters II (1989). He also wrote (with Brian Doyle-Murray) and directed Club Paradise (1986). He wrote the film Armed and Dangerous (1986) with Brian Grazer, James Keach, and Peter Torokvei. Mr. Ramis appeared in the films Baby Boom (1987) and Stealing Home (1988). 

In the Nineties Harold Ramis developed the story for the animated film Rover Dangerfield with Rodney Dangerfield. He also directed and wrote (with Danny Rubin) one of the most successful films of his career, Groundhog Day (1993). The film would not only be a success at the box office, but would have a lasting impact on pop culture, with the film often referenced with regards to recurring situations. He directed the films Stuart Saves His Family (1995), Multiplicity (1996), Analyse This (1999), and Bedazzled (2000). He co-wrote Analyse This with Peter Toland and Kenneth Lonergan. Bedazzled was based on the 1967 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy of the same name. Mr. Ramis co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Gelbart and Peter Tolan. He appeared in the films Airheads (1994), Love Affair (1994), and As Good as It Gets (1997).

In the Naughts Mr. Ramis directed the films Analyse That (2002), The Ice Harvest (2005), and Year One (2009). He also directed episodes of The Office. He co-wrote Analyse That with Peter Steinfeld and Peter Tolan, and co-wrote Year One with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. He appeared in the films Orange County (2002), I'm with Lucy (2002), The Last Kiss (2006), Knocked Up (2007), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) and Year One.

While Harold Ramis had his share of misses, I honestly believe that he was one of the very few consistently funny, modern day comedy writers and directors. Indeed, he either wrote or directed (sometimes both) some of the most popular and highly regarded comedies of the past forty years. Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day are still watched today and audiences still find them as funny today as audiences did when they were first released.

Harold Ramis' success as a writer and director of comedies may have been due to the fact that he made comedies like no one else. In many respects Harold Ramis' films were like live-action, Warner Brothers cartoons, with the humour often tending towards being wild and even outré. At the same time, however, his comedies usually had a very cerebral element to them. This is true even of his earliest comedies, from Animal House to Stripes. They could be nearly anarchic and often even downright gross, but they were also much more intellectual than some of their contemporaries.His films either portrayed the struggle of individuals with authority (Delta House with Faber College, Winger and Ziskey with the U.S. Army) or individuals struggling with themselves (Groundhog Day and Analyse This), and sometime both (Caddyshack is an example of this). In some respects one could say the theme of Harold Ramis' oeuvre was self actualisation.

Beyond being a true talent in the field of comedy, it is also to be noted that Harold Ramis was recognised by many as simply being a nice guy.  Everyone who worked with him always had kind words to say about Harold Ramis. Those lucky enough to meet him always described him as a sweet, funny, and unassuming man. Indeed, it is not every man who would leave the bright lights of Hollywood to return to his hometown of Chicago. It is perhaps not enough to say that Harold Ramis made what were some of the last few truly funny comedies in film history. He was also a true gentleman.

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