How meeting comedy giant Harold Ramis exceeded any expectations I had

02.24.14 3 years ago 10 Comments

Columbia Pictures

There are very few perfect films.

Part of what makes films so beautiful and rich and rewarding is that they are the result of a sort of mass insanity that happens when you have all of these people all pushing to create something tangible, something that moves us to some sort of real emotional place. It’s easy to forget that movies are ultimately a bunch of people standing around playing make-believe, but with a crew there to capture it all. Considering how many moving pieces there are in any film, it’s almost miraculous when they actually come together coherently, much less in a way that manages to make us genuinely lose ourselves in what we’re watching.

Harold Ramis made a perfect movie. “Groundhog Day” is one of the few mainstream comedies that I think actually grows and gets richer and more wonderful the more you revisit it, something which seems especially apt considering how the film is structured. The original Danny Rubin script was a damn fine starting point, but it was Ramis who polished that script into the gem it is, as great a piece of commercial movie writing as “Back To The Future,” and in scene after scene, Ramis is so on-point as a director that it’s sort of humbling. “Groundhog Day” is what it looks like when someone is so in the zone that they can’t get it wrong, when everything clicks on every level, and it may be the best of Bill Murray’s big comedy performance. Again, that’s apt considering the history Murray shares with Ramis, and while the collaboration they had on this evidently ended their personal and professional relationships, at least we’ll always have this moment, this particular high point for both of them, and we can cherish that.

When I got the news via phone call this morning that Ramis had passed away, it hit me much harder than most celebrity deaths do, and I’m still struggling to fully articulate why that is.

All films fans have their particular fetishes or interests or likes and dislikes, and the process of coming to those beliefs is a lifelong one, an evolution that begins as soon as we”re old enough to process whatever it is that we”re watching. As I was first immersing myself in the world of film, it was just as the first cast of “Saturday Night Live” was starting to make its presence felt in films.

I remember seeing “Foul Play” theatrically and wondering where Chevy Chase came from, since my mother already seemed to be a fan. That led me to SNL, which was on the list of banned comedy in my house that also included “Mad” magazine, Monty Python, and “National Lampoon.” All of those things automatically became more interesting as soon as they were forbidden, and I found myself drawn to this Second City generation of writers, actors, and directors.

Harold Ramis cuts as large a figure in that movement as anyone else, and it”s hard to argue his place in the film comedy firmament. When your first film as a director is “Caddyshack,” it”s safe to say that you”ve made your mark. When you add in the screenplay for “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Meatballs,” and “Stripes,” as well as his work on SCTV, there are few people in film comedy who have ever had such a strong start.

By the time he directed “National Lampoon’s Vacation” in 1983, I was a full-blown freak for his work, and “Vacation” was one of those movies I saw the way only a 13 year old can see a film: several thousand times in the space of a few months. I find I can still quote that movie almost in its entirety, and I haven”t seen it in at least a decade.

None of that compared, though, to the reaction I had to “Ghostbusters” when it arrived in the summer of 1984. By that point, I was already horror-crazy as well as comedy-mad, and to find a film that mixed the two with such aplomb… it felt like someone out there was making films specifically for me. Sure, the film went on to become a pop-culture phenomenon that year, but it couldn”t have been an easy sell. It feels like the kind of film that could have only been made after a string of hits.

Sure, Ramis spent some years in the commercial wilderness. But I still say “Stuart Saves His Family” is underappreciated. It”s a really ugly portrait of family life that never goes for the easy laughs, and it digs deeper than you”d expect from a film spun off from a sketch on SNL. “The Ice Harvest” was a solid, dark adaptation of a solid, dark novel, and if more than 40 people had seen it, it might be better-loved. No matter what you think of “Analyze This” or “Analyze That” or the misbegotten remake of “Bedazzled,” Ramis remains a towering figure in film comedy as both writer and director.

As an actor, even when he just shows up for a few scenes in a film, he can steal the whole thing a la “Orange County.” Just last week, I rewatched “Stripes” for the first time in a while, and while I think the film itself is remarkably uneven, I adore watching Ramis and Murray play scenes together. Ramis had that amazing voice that seemed to emanate from somewhere just behind the stomach, froggy and unforgettable, and there was a sort of sonic genius to casting him as Seth Rogen’s father in “Knocked Up.” There’s a shelf in my office, one of many that’s covered in mementos, and on one end, there’s a dancing Mr. Gopher from “Caddyshack,” and on the other, one of the fake pot plants from the grow room set in “Pineapple Express,” Rogen and Ramis bookended.

In “Ghostbusters,” he’s the guy who constantly drops the most amazing non-sequitur lines, and I pretty much love it each and every time he speaks as Egon Spengler. “Print is dead” and “I collect spores, molds, and fungus” were both constant refrains for me and my comedy-nerd buddies, and I used to be able to make Scott Swan crack up simply by picking a quiet moment to say, “I had a Slinky. I straightened it.” In “Stripes,” he’s got this sly smile on for most of the movie like he’s got a secret.

Anyone who wants a practical illustration of how good he was at building totally different characters should look at how cool he is as Russell in “Stripes” and what a uber-weirdo he is in “Ghostbusters.” Those are totally different guys, the one common connection being the intelligence that Ramis couldn’t hide even if he tried.

When I was working for Ain’t It Cool, I got a chance to visit the set of “Year One,” and was given time to be there by myself, no other journalists around. I spent much of the day circling him, and then eventually got to sit down to chat for a while. The day after it happened, I published a piece about it. It’s rare that you get to write something that soon after visiting a set, and you can still tell how breathless I am about the whole thing.

Here’s the heart of the piece, reprinted so you don’t have to read it in one big giant HTML block:

He talked to me a bit about meeting Harry in Austin, and about his first encounter with Ain”t It Cool (an early script review for “Analyze This”) back in 1997 or so. He didn”t go overboard or anything, and I didn”t feel like he”d been coached. He just seemed like he had the same relationship a lot of filmmakers do with the site… there are times he”s enjoyed being mentioned, and times he hasn”t, and he”s smart enough to know that both will happen over time. As the day wore on, I tried to stay out of his way. He had a number of other visitors, personal guests who he was obviously busy with, and since I was only on-set for six hours or so, I wanted to watch as much of his process as I could.

Still, late in the afternoon, he ended up walking over as they were re-lighting the set, and he started chatting, obviously in the mood to talk a little. I couldn”t help myself, and I finally let out all the geek energy I”d been building all day. “You know, I have you to blame and/or thank for my very first job when I was fourteen.” He looked worried by this until I explained that “Caddyshack” had made that job look so good that I had gone out and become a caddy at a local course in Tennessee.

“Good. I”m just glad it wasn”t ‘Stripes’.” He told me that Army enlistment actually skyrocketed after “Stripes” was released because of guys seeing the movie and thinking it looked like fun. Ramis looked equal parts guilty and amused at the thought of a generation of guys realizing that they all couldn”t be Bill Murray.
This led to us talking about the way “Animal House” almost single-handedly revitalized the Greek system on college campuses across America. “At first, I think the fraternities were happy, but then when they realized that everyone wanted the ‘Animal House’ experience, it turned out to not be such a good thing.”

A rise in binge drinking, date rapes, and academic failure… what a legacy.

I realized that Ramis had given me the opening to talk about his whole career, and that”s exactly what we did. We had that conversation you always hope you”re going to have when you”re talking to someone who has been involved in almost 30 years worth of classics, where we managed to drift from memories of Doug Kenney to the way the “Caddyshack” script was altered while they were shooting to the new “Ghostbusters” game that”s coming out this year to Rick Moranis and his country music career.

As we were talking, all that intimidation I almost always try to hide while talking to people I admire just dropped away. He stopped being HAROLD RAMIS COMEDY LEGEND and just became Harold Ramis, filmmaker, and that”s not an easy jump to make. I may interact with more filmmakers than the average film fan, but I still come to this as a fan first. I am in Los Angeles and working because of the films and the filmmakers who influenced me. I am who I am because of what I have watched. And in some cases, because of what I have rewatched again and again.

To finally be able to talk to him about the Chevy Chase/Bill Murray scene in “Caddyshack” and how hard it was to wrangle the two of them into a room together, or to be able to hear him talk about his original dream casting for “Animal House,” or to be able to just talk about “Monty Python’s Life Of Brian” with him and why it is the one truly great Biblical comedy (if you don”t count De Mille films) was uncommonly enjoyable.

Here”s a guy who could easily have been courteous but distant, and I never would have said a bad word about it, but he went way above and beyond. He didn”t put on an act, either… he was just approachable and normal, able to talk about his past without acting like it was a chore, but also obviously able to look at his body of work with real perspective and a clear eye for why it worked.

I”m just pleased that I can include Ramis on the list of people who actually exceeded my expectations. He”s a class act, and that was obvious not only from my own talk with him, but from the way everyone on that set talked about him. Thanks to Harold Ramis for being a decent, normal, approachable human being. It”s sad that those characteristics make you the exception rather than the rule in this town, but it”s nice to know that the size of someone”s ego does not have to be dictated by the size of their influence on the industry.

When he talked to Steve Prokopy about “Year One” upon release, he started the interview by saying he’d enjoyed meeting me on the set visit, and just reading again about that day, it means the world to me to think that he enjoyed that conversation even one small part as much as I did.

Harold Ramis left a huge mark on this business, and he leaves behind a justified legend, a body of work to be proud of, and an ocean of people who loved him dearly. He will be missed, but he will never be gone.

Harold Ramis was 69 years old.

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