Harold Ramis: The death of a comedy legend

Christian Harding
Assoc. Opinion Editor

The world lost a comedy legend when Harold Ramis – a celebrated actor and director active within the past couple of decades – passed away last week at the age of 69. Among some of the more recent, tragic celebrity deaths, this one feels like one of the most saddening.

harold_ramis_ripRamis might not have had a face familiar to the average American citizen, even though he shared a marquee with Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters” and made cameo appearances in other movies. But everyone is probably familiar with at least some of his work – a list of films which included “Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” “Analyze This.”- among various other films. Cult classic after cult classic.

A mini-memorial to the beloved actor, writer and director was sprung up outside the Tribeca firehouse where some of the 1984 comedy “Ghostbusters” was filmed. Fans gathered at Ladder 8 on the corner of North Moore and Varick Sts. last week to mourn Ramis, who played Dr. Egon Spengler in the 1984 film that he also helped write.

His passing prompted an outpouring of love from his fans, co-stars, fellow actors and writers and even the President and First Lady. “Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Ramis, one of America’s greatest satirists, and like so many other comedic geniuses, a proud product of Chicago’s Second City,” President Obama said in a statement. “When we watched his movies … we didn’t just laugh until it hurt. We questioned authority. We identified with the outsider. We rooted for the underdog. And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings,” the President said, adding condolences to Ramis’ extended family.

Ramis’ strength, and his major passion, was with both writing and directing. His brilliant work shaped not just the baby boomer generation of comedy but inspired the one after it … and then the one after that as well.

Like a champion Olympian who displays consummate skill after years of practice, he made his work look easy. But it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.

“Comedy … is very difficult,” the comedian told the Tribune Magazine in 1983, while he was in the process of working on “Ghostbusters.” “Even to make a stupid joke work takes a certain kind of intelligence that’s not apparent in the content of the joke. In ‘Meatballs,’ for example, the kids are coming out of mess hall, and you hear Bill (Murray) saying: ‘Here’s an update on today’s lunch. It was veal. Veal.’

Harold-RamisThe winner of today’s mystery-meat competition is Billy Posner, who guessed, ‘Some kind of meat.'” Ramis laughed. “Now that is a different way to handle it than just having kids look at their plates and go ‘yuck.'”

John Candy, another celebrated comedian long since passed, who co-starred with Ramis on the landmark 1970s television series SCTV, said this of the man: “He taught us a lot of discipline. We were always writing long stage pieces. Harold would come in and just slash, slash, slash. Initially you thought it was something you did. Why does he hate me? But he was always explaining, ‘There, this is what’s funny right here. Cut right to it.’ He always kept saying, ‘Just think of yourself watching.'”

Over the years, Ramis gathered a number of film accolades and friends all along the way, and then eventually returned to the Chicago area where he had grown up as a child, and wound up becoming a cinematic guru over there. The successful Hollywood director had abandoned Los Angeles for the time being because, as he told the Tribune in 1999, it was structured too much like a high school. “Am I popular? Am I cool? Am I in? Who’s the in crowd? How do I get into that party? These are not things I ever wanted to worry about. Here I’m so liberated from that.”

And Chicago was all the more better off for it. Anyone could run into Ramis at a Starbucks in Glencoe or a diner in Northfield. He’d probably flash a big smile right in your direction, the hint of a truly subversive nature dancing behind the glasses and arched eyebrows. He felt at home. And he was.

Thanks for the laughs, Mr. Ramis. You’ll never be forgotten.

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