Harold Ramis, a filmmaker who let us all laugh together
FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2009 file photo, actor and director Harold Ramis laughs as he walks the red carpet to celebrate The Second City's 50th anniversary in Chicago. An attorney for Ramis said the actor died Monday morning, Feb. 24, 2014, from complications of autoimmune inflammatory disease. He was 69. Ramis is best known for his roles in the comedies "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes." (AP Photo/Jim Prisching, File)
‘I always drink to world peace.”
That’s just one of the myriad oft-quoted lines from Groundhog Day, by many lights the life’s masterwork of Harold Ramis, who died yesterday, at 69, from complications from vasculitis, a rare inflammatory disease that damages blood vessels. The 1993 film – which starred Bill Murray as a cynical newscaster who goes on a mysterious, fuguelike journey through the time-space continuum while covering the holiday in Punxsutawney, Penn. – has entered the pantheon of classic American comedies, revered for its philosophical loop-de-loops, unabashed romance and characteristically deadpan Murray performance.
Groundhog Day, which Ramis wrote and directed (and played a small role in), also has come to be considered a perfectly written film – its screenplay, along with Chinatown and The Godfather, is regularly taught as a textbook example of structure, pacing, dialogue and swift, vivid characterization. Granted, Ramis was working with an original script written by Danny Rubin, who according to Hollywood legend and lore had delivered a famously flawless first draft. But through their collaborative efforts – and thanks to Ramis’s frequent collaborator, Bill Murray, being willing to take new, darker risks with his heretofore lovably goofy persona – Groundhog Day has stood the test of time, taking pride of place alongside It’s a Wonderful Life as the go-to holiday movie for families the world over.
Before Groundhog Day, Ramis delivered a batch of comedies now considered emblematic of the late 1970s and ’80s: Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters. Most of them starred Murray, whom Ramis met in Chicago’s Second City (that’s also where Ramis met John Belushi, for whom Animal House was a breakout hit).
At a time when so many Americans are getting their comedy by way of YouTube links and late-night shticks, when what we find amusing is as narrow-cast and fragmented as how we vote and where we shop, Ramis’s oeuvre allows us to reflect on a moment, now distant, when we could all laugh together.
Is it any accident that both Ramis and John Hughes – his fellow avatar of 1980s cinema – both hailed from Chicago? The world they collectively depicted on screen was by no means representative; it was blindingly white, conspicuously male and monotonously middle class. But they nonetheless captured enough of the zeitgeist to touch a universal nerve – or, in Ramis’s case, funny bone.
Just as TV anchors historically sought to acquire a flat, Midwestern accent, the better to appeal to the broadest swath of regions and states, Ramis’s work broadly represents America. His films landed in that fertile middle ground somewhere in between sophisticated and slapstick, outrageous and relatable, naughty and nice: They were flyover comedies, in the most humanistic, accessible sense of the term.
Ensuing generations of filmgoers probably know Ramis best as “that guy” in the countless films in which he co-starred with Murray, or Seth Rogen’s dad in Knocked Up. That film, of course, was directed by Judd Apatow, who counted Ramis as an influence on his own films, which took raunch and ribaldry to the next level, for better or worse.
A glance back at his career invites us to reflect on more innocent, less hard-edged times and tastes. As Murray discovered in Groundhog Day, it’s usually a good idea to drink to world peace. But today, let’s drink to Harold Ramis.