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.
The Dynamic Duo
After the success of Animal House and Meatballs, Ramis decided that in addition to working on the script for his next feature, he would also step behind the camera to direct. Caddyshack was the next collaboration between Murray and Ramis, and together, they would find that their cinematic sensibilities were perfectly in sync.
In comedy, we’re out there alone, and it turns out I don’t want to work alone—Bill was a tremendous source of strength and protection. If a scene didn’t work, I’d just say, ‘O.K., let’s start lighting,’ and Bill and I would talk for half an hour, and we’d get something great.
Caddyshack wasn’t without its difficulties though. Ramis wrote the script with Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle Murray, and Doug Kenney. During the drafting of the script, Kenney had delved into a cocaine binge and become depressed. At a 1980 press junket for the film, Kenney became distraught and despondent, and was asked to leave by the film’s producers. A short time later, his body was found in Kauai, Hawaii after falling off a cliff.
For Ivan Reitman’s fourth directorial effort, he had a had a military-themed script that was penned for Cheech and Chong. Reitman wasn’t too fond of the material, though, and asked Ramis to rewrite it with a few caveats.
I thought, Harold is my secret weapon. Bill is this great improv player, but he needs Harold, the focused composer who understands setting a theme and the rules of orchestration. So I told Harold, ‘One, I want you to co-star in my movie, and, two, I want you to rewrite it for two really intelligent guys—you and Bill.’
Stripes—the third collaboration between Murray and Ramis— was their first time starring opposite each other, and the film was a hit: with a budget of $10 million, the film grossed $83 million. Murray was a tornado of comedy—what Dan Aykroyd called “The Murricane”— and Ramis played the perfect foil. Ramis knew exactly how to wrangle the quick-witted talents of Murray, and Stripes displayed to the world that this powerhouse pairing had a special chemistry.
Murray and Ramis would star in two more films together in the 80s: Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. With Ivan Reitman directing, and Murray stealing every scene—with scripts penned by Ramis and Dan Akyroyd—the two films were gigantic hits, and to this day remain two of the most successful comedies ever created.
It was official. Bill Murray was a bonafide movie star, and Harold Ramis was one of the most in demand writer-directors in Hollywood. Everything Murray and Ramis touched had turned to gold. In 1991, they had begun developing their sixth collaborative effort, and it would turn out to be the masterwork of their alliance. It would also turn out to be the albatross that would drive a wedge between their professional and personal relationship.
Screenwriter Danny Rubin had written a script for a film called Groundhog Day, in which its main character would find himself in a loop, repeating the same day over and over. Rubin recalls Ramis helping rewrite the script, playing to Bill Murray’s strengths to get the actor onboard as the lead.
Harold built it into a three-act studio movie by giving it a very clear arc: ‘This is the worst day of Phil’s life. What would make it even worse? Repeating it every day.’
During the filming, Murray’s life was tumultuous. His marriage was dissolving, and his demeanor on the set was increasingly erratic. He would show up late to work, throw tantrums, and generally disagree with many of Ramis’ choices. While Ramis wanted the film to be a straight forward comedy, Murray wanted the film to be more contemplative.
With their professional relationship at a strain, Ramis sent Rubin to work with Murray on the script in lieu of their usual collaborative writing sessions. When Ramis would call to check up on their progress, Murray would ignore the phone calls.
At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set. What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’
Despite their growing rift, Groundhog Day was another huge hit for the pair, but after the film finished shooting, Murray refused to speak to Ramis. Murray, infamous for his aversion to interviews, never really approached the subject of their dissolution, but one thing was clear: the combination of Murray’s unprofessionalism on the set, mixed with creative differences, had created a fissure in their once fruitful relationship. Also, several of Murray and Ramis’ friends — including Michael Shamberg, a Hollywood producer and Ramis’ college buddy — believe that Murray had grown disenchanted with the notion that Ramis was responsible for his best work.
Bill owes everything to Harold, and he probably has a thimbleful of gratitude.
The golden run of Ramis-Murray had come to an end and — propelled by a toxic cocktail of indelible bitterness — the pair wouldn’t speak again for 21 years. While Murray was mum on the situation, Ramis candidly spoke about how the divorce affected him.
I’ve had many dreams about him, that we’re friends again. There was a great reunion feeling in those dreams. Bill was a strong man. He was a rock for us. You’d do a movie with Bill, a big comedy in those early days, just knowing he could save the day no matter how bad the script was, that we’d find something through improvisation. That was our alliance, kind of, our big bond. I could help him be the best funny Bill Murray he could be, and I think he appreciated that then. And I don’t know where that went, but it’s there on film. So whatever happens between us in the future, at least we have those expressions.
Fade To Black
In his latter years, Ramis had developed Autoimmune Inflammatory Vasculitis, a disease characterized by the swelling of the blood vessels. His health began to severely deteriorate when, in May 2010, he contracted an infection related to the disease. Ramis was confined to a wheelchair, and had to re-learn to walk. Then, in 2011, he suffered a relapse, and he was never the same.
Ramis’ dream of speaking to Murray again did eventually happen. Brian Doyle Murray convinced his superstar brother to visit Ramis as he lay dying in his North Shore home.
The two buried the hatchet. They spoke of their beloved Chicago Cubs. Perhaps, they reminisced about their time at Second City. Or, maybe, they waxed on about that time they had taken over the cinematic universe together.
Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.