It was a fleeting glance that seemed to last an eternity.
At the 2014 Academy Awards, Bill Murray — less than one week removed from the death of his former friend and collaborator Harold Ramis — was presenting the Oscar for Best Cinematography. After reading the list of nominees, Murray said, “Oh, we forgot one. Harold Ramis for Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day.”
Murray then peered directly into the camera, and his smile straightened. His eyes welled up, and for one brief second, the normally reserved and collected actor’s face crumpled into a look of sorrow.
It was a fitting tribute to Ramis, who had been Murray’s collaborator on six films including Caddyshack, Meatballs, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day. The tandem had broken box office records for comedies and helped usher in an anti-establishment aesthetic still going strong today.
But something happened in 1993 between Ramis and Murray, and the pair would not speak to each other — save a few pleasantries at events — for almost 21 years. And when they did finally speak, it was with the shadow of death looming over them.
The Chicago Connection
Harold Ramis was born in Chicago, and he would spend most of his life there. A naturally gifted writer, Ramis’ first foray into the printed word would be with the Chicago Daily News in the mid-60s. He then transitioned into comedy writing, editing the “Party Jokes” section of Playboy magazine. In 1969 Ramis was accepted into the Second City, an improvisational sketch comedy troupe that would birth the careers of such comedy luminaries as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. Ramis was essentially typecast.
I played a lot of weasels, a lot of cowards; sweating cowards was my thing. I used to play like hippies and, like, counterculture guys, and [John] Belushi kind of took that over, so I moved into the coward role. … The other thing I would always play was the character called “specs” or “the professor.” I’d play the brainy guy, which I ended up doing, of course, in Ghostbusters.
Ramis would leave the theater briefly after an LSD trip led to a revelation that he didn’t belong on the stage. When he returned in 1972, John Belushi had taken his place, and Ramis would settle into a “straight-man” role that would pervade the rest of his acting career.
Bill Murray’s path to the Second City theater was almost derailed in 1970. Following his brother Brian’s lead, Murray had joined the Second City workshops, but found it difficult to pay the bills. At the Chicago O’Hare airport — at only 21-years old — Murray was arrested with 10 pounds of marijuana, and placed on probation, narrowly avoiding jail time. The arrest gave Murray the motivation to throw himself headfirst into his comedy and acting prowess.
In 1974, John Belushi recruited Murray, Ramis, and other cohorts from Chicago’s Second City to New York, to begin work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and The National Lampoon Show. The young comedic upstarts would also star in a National Lampoon stage show produced by filmmaker Ivan Reitman. It would become the impetus for Ramis’ eventual evolution into screenwriting.
During this time, Lorne Michaels had grown fond of the troupe, and began drafting talents like Murray and Belushi onto his new TV sketch show, Saturday Night Live. Ramis was sought after to become a writer for the show, but he decided to stay with Second City, becoming SCTV’s first head writer while Murray continued to build his star potential on SNL.
After having written for the stage and TV, Ramis got his first crack at a feature film when he drafted the script for National Lampoon’s Animal House. When it was released in 1978, Animal House earned a whopping $141 million, which at the time was a record-breaking haul for the comedy genre. Ramis was a hit.
Similarly, Murray’s star continued to rise as one of the lead players on SNL. Working off a script that Ramis wrote, Ivan Reitman employed Murray to star in his film, Meatballs. Living up to his elusive nature, no one was certain Murray was going to play the lead, even up until the first day of production.
He did show up, and the film would mark the beginning of his ascension into movie star status. Meatballs also signaled something else, the start of one of the most successful pairings in film history.