Comedy great Harold Ramis dead at 69

Ramis
Ramis
Posted: February 26, 2014

THERE'S A line in the movie "Groundhog Day" that probably sums up how you feel about the recent weather.

"I'll give you a winter prediction," says weatherman Bill Murray, condemned to Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney until he learns to love someone other than himself. "It's going to be cold, it's going to be gray and it's going to last you for the rest of your life."

The line was written by Harold Ramis, 69, who died yesterday after a prolonged struggle with an autoimmune disease. You probably know his name, but if you don't, know that Ramis probably made you laugh more than any writer/director/actor of his time.

He might have been the most talented comedy writer of his generation. He was a gifted comic actor (Egon Spengler in "Ghostbusters"), and as writer-director he gave us the beloved "Caddyshack," and the classic "Groundhog Day."

Ramis wrote nearly 40 movies, directed 14, and there is something in there that has had almost everyone laughing to the point of tears.

I first became a fan of Ramis in the late '70s, when he appeared on "SCTV," an offbeat comedy series about life at a forlorn TV station. Ramis was head writer, coming up with ideas for a cast that included Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara and John Candy. (He wrote the infamous "Leave it to Beaver" sketch with the Beaver - Candy - as an adult, having an unfortunate incident with a firearm.)

Ramis could be funny on-screen, but he had a special ability for spotting the particular genius of other comedians and crafting material especially for them. He once said that the first time he performed with John Belushi onstage (at Second City in Chicago), he realized his limitations as an actor and decided to focus on writing, then directing.

As a writer, though, he had few equals. He wrote "Animal House" (featuring Belushi), "National Lampoon's Vacation" (Chevy Chase), and "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day" for frequent collaborator and fellow Chicagoan Bill Murray, surely one of the great comedy collaborations in modern screen history.

Ramis first tried directing in "Caddyshack," and proved to be generous to a fault. The cast was encouraged to have a wonderful time on- and off-camera - so wonderful off-camera that extra security had to be brought in. Ramis gave his cast wide latitude for improvisation and it yielded classic bits by Chase and especially Murray, whose performance as demented greenkeeper Carl Spackler created perhaps the most quoted patches of improvised dialogue in modern movie history.

The movie was a mess when finished. In desperation, a disheartened Ramis agreed to shoot a few extra scenes with an animatronic gopher to provide a bare minimum of dramatic structure. Ramis said it hurt his artistic pride, but, needless to say, it worked.

He became a more disciplined director over time, and his writing became more mature. "Groundhog Day" was a high-water mark for him and Murray, a movie as quietly profound as it is funny - it's studied by religious scholars who see in it important elements of several faiths.

Others see a movie that, like all of Ramis' work, makes the world a little less cold, a little less gray and a lot more merry.

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