Harold Ramis, who died today at 69, helped create such hits as Animal House, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Meatballs and others. And he brought an impish spirit to all of them.
Onscreen he was a big smiling lug: shaggy, upbeat, cheery. He was almost always a supporting player, but invariably a forceful one you really couldn’t ignore.
In his first big-screen appearance, in the military comedy Stripes, he and Bill Murray play buddies who decide to join the Army just for fun. But first, they have to get past a recruiter, who asks: “Are either of you homosexuals?”
There’s a long pause. Ramis and Murray eye each other, trying to figure out what answer is likeliest to get them in.
“No,” Ramis’ character says. “We’re not homosexual. But we are willing to learn.”
Rambunctious and sloppy, Ramis was amusing in his eagerness to please, and you could say much the same thing about the comedies he wrote — or rather co-wrote. Like most great improvisers, he was also a great collaborator, bouncing ideas and riffs off the likes of Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
He’d orchestrate the resulting chaos into something that occasionally made sense, but almost invariably made you laugh — whether it was a food-fight in Animal House or a convoluted plan to neutralize poltergeists in Ghostbusters.
Ramis got his start as a joke editor for Playboy magazine, then joined the Chicago improv troupe Second City. From there, he moved to New York and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where the aesthetic was sort of ‘60s counterculture meets the Borscht Belt.
While he was a successful performer, Ramis realized some of his compatriots — John Belushi, for instance — were connecting more forcefully with audiences. Happily, he found writing and directing even more satisfying than performing, and his résumé soon included a long list of what you might call rebellion-against-authority comedies. His films allowed stars to tear up a summer camp in Meatballs, a golf-course in Caddyshack, the army in Stripes, all of New York in Ghostbusters and the mob in Analyze This.
Ramis’ characters even rebelled against time itself in Groundhog Day, a comedy that was not just crazed, but also cerebral. The central conceit — a character caught in a loop, reliving the same 24-hour period over and over — has inspired doctoral dissertations.
Ramis, meanwhile, inspired a host of successors, including Judd Apatow, the Farrelly Brothers and Adam Sandler. And he’s left a body of work that will allow audiences to get caught in a loop of comic anarchy for the foreseeable future.