On screen, Harold Ramis, who died today at the age of 69, was always more than happy to play the goofy or dorky best friend. No one left the theater wanting to be Russell Ziskey; you wanted to be John Winger. Nobody yearned to step into Egon Spengler’s boots; your goal was to be as cool as Peter Venkman. Of course, that’s not to say Ramis’s deft comic timing wasn’t appreciated in either Stripes or Ghostbusters. He’s wonderful in both as a performer. Look no further than his Ghosbusters line reading of “print is dead” or his little “I think this building should be condemned” speech when they visit the abandoned firehouse.
But it’s behind the camera where Ramis was a true comic dynamo. As a screenwriter, he played a huge part in crafting six of the greatest film comedies of his era: Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School and Groundhog Day. He also took on directing duties for Caddyshack and Groundhog Day, as well as National Lampoon’s Vacation, which was written by John Hughes (another filmmaker we lost too soon). For people of a certain age — my age — these films are are a big reason why you call yourself a movie fan. They are the reasons why you find funny the things you find funny. They are the backbone of your film-comedy knowledge and the movies you eternally judge all other comedies against.
Like a lot of the big film comedians from that era, Ramis got his start with the Second City and National Lampoon comedy troupes, where he worked as a performer and writer alongside such folks as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Rick Moranis and John Candy. After a stint on Second City Television (better known at SCTV), he jumped to writing features, where he found immediate success with 1978’s Animal House and 1979’s Meatballs. In addition to the classics listed above, Ramis also wrote and directed the SCTV-heavy Club Paradise; the Michael Keaton-and-his-clones comedy Multiplicity; the Analyze This/That films with Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro; and Bedazzled, which pitted Elizabeth Hurley’s Devil against Brendan Fraser. He also directed the SNL spinoff Stuart Saves His Family and took his one stab at something darker and more dramatic with The Ice Harvest, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thorton. He co-wrote and starred in Ghostbusters II and reprised the character of Egon one last time in 2009 when he lent his voice to the surprisingly good Ghostbusters: The Video Game. That same year saw the release of his final film as director, the caveman comedy Year One, with Jack Black and Michael Cera.
I remember as a kid, my friend Jason and I tried to set a world record for most consecutive days watching the same film. That film was Ghostbusters. I have no idea if such a record is actually tracked (probably not) or how many days we racked up in our quest, but I can tell you this: We never got tired of the movie. Not then, not now and not ever. It’s his work behind the camera that makes Ramis a film legend, but it’s the role of Egon Spengler, in all his glorious weirdness, that makes Ramis immortal. Want proof? The guy is now officially a Lego:
Rest in peace, Harold Ramis. Everyone who laughs at the movies, whether they know it or not, is in your debt.