Harold Ramis dies: Was comedy Avatar

The writer-director-actor had a hand in many of the genre's landmark films of the ’70s, ’80 and ’90s.

When I walked out of a screening Monday morning to the news that Harold Ramis was dead at 69, I got the feeling that some part of my childhood had died with him — a feeling not unlike the one, five years ago, that came with the death of that other towering figure of 1980s American screen comedy, John Hughes.

Certainly, if you came of age during the Reagan years, you may not have known Ramis’ name, but you certainly knew his work. As writer, director and even occasional actor, his movies were at the top of the box office, and present in any moderately well-stocked VHS collection — and along with Hughes, John Landis, and Ivan Reitman, he effectively defined a certain brand of ribald, latter-day movie slapstick that had its roots in college humor magazines and those two bastions of televised sketch comedy: “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.”

As a child, I remember there was something faintly taboo about Ramis’ first two directorial features, “Caddyshack” (1980) and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), lurking just out of reach in their Warner Home Video clamshell cover boxes in the neighborhood videostore.

I’m quite sure I first saw both movies on commercial television, minus many of their more explosively funny, R-rated bits (though “Caddyshack’s” immortal Baby Ruth gag was, as memory serves, more or less intact).

Of course, by that point, Ramis had already sowed his oats as a screenwriter on Landis’ “Animal House” (1978) and Reitman’s “Meatballs” (1979), both of which remain, four decades on, enormous pleasure-giving pictures, and the gold standards to which all subsequent campus and summer camp comedies have aspired. The latter was also the start of a fruitful filmmaking partnership between Ramis and his fellow Chicagoan, Bill Murray, that would last through the extraordinary “Groundhog Day” in 1993.

But well before then, Ramis saw in Murray the potential for a kind of cosmic stoner Buddha. Director and actor had both caddied in their youth, which helped give “Caddyshack” a ring of truth just beneath the absurdist veneer. And as the unstable assistant groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Murray moved through the movie on his own transgressive wavelength, whether displaying the intensity of a soldier in the trenches in battling an animatronic gopher, or recounting the time he caddied for the Dalai Lama.

The following year, in Reitman’s “Stripes,” Ramis stepped in front of the camera to play the sad-sack sidekick who impulsively follows Murray’s unemployed cab driver into Army basic training, and a deft deadpan comedian stood revealed. Then, armed with Hughes’ shrewd, semi-autobiographical script, Ramis brought the iconic Griswold clan to life for their first (and still best) bigscreen adventure, anchored by Chevy Chase’s superb portrayal of the hapless, emasculated suburban WASP male shaking his fist at the indignities of the Fates.

It’s probably difficult for audiences inculcated by today’s commonplace CGI spectacles to realize just how anomalous Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” seemed upon its arrival in 1984: a large-scale, effects-driven “supernatural comedy” that turned New York into a staging ground for the apocalypse and filled the screen with such wondrous sights as a 50-foot-tall marshmallow man in tilted sailor’s cap (which, to this 6-year-old’s eyes, was just about the funniest thing I’d ever seen). The movie was a major event at a time before the term “tentpole” had entered the cinematic lexicon. It seemed to run forever, and then was re-released and ran some more.With its re-releases, in 1984 dollars, it grossed just shy of $300 million in 1984 dollars. And at the center of it all, never compromised in the name of action or effects, were the wonderfully human, off-kilter characters conceived by Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, who gave themselves two of the plum roles. And so to a generation Ramis will always be best remembered as the hopelessly nerdy and socially maladroit Dr. Egon Spengler, only slowly awakening to the barely veiled affections of his acerbic secretary (Annie Potts) — like Tracy and Hepburn with buckets of slime.

But it was with “Groundhog Day” that Ramis began to accrue the critical recognition that had largely eluded him. The movie spun off from a brilliant premise that was like the love child of Frank Capra and Jacques Rivette: A vain TV weatherman finds himself trapped in an endless repeating eternal present in bucolic small-town Pennsylvania. And Ramis (who co-wrote the script with Danny Rubin) gave himself over fully to the absurdity of the idea without feeling any need to provide a rational explanation for what was happening.

Murray acted beautifully, though it was said that he and Ramis fought over the tone and direction of the film, and it would be the last time they worked together. Without it, however, Murray’s late-career revival is unthinkable, as are the likes of a “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In the two decades since, Ramis stayed steadily at work, and the enormity of his influence on a younger generation of comics could be felt when Judd Apatow cast him as father to Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up.” There was talk of a third “Ghostbusters” movie that never came to fruition.

But in the meantime, in 2005, Ramis directed another true gem. Written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton from Scott Phillips’ tart crime novel, “The Ice Harvest” was a passion project that Ramis spent years trying to set up, with John Cusack as a crooked lawyer and Billy Bob Thornton as an even more crooked strip-club proprietor both trying to swindle the mob — and each other — out of $2 million. Reviewing it at the time, I wrote that “its jazzy rhythm and economy of form place it closer to a 1950s film noir, shot through with humor so dark you need a flashlight to see it,” and that still sounds about right. It was Ramis’ least typical film, and one of his least seen, but it revealed reserves of untapped interest within a director who seemed eager to flex his creative muscles by exploring new genres.

Ramis did so much that was so good, and yet one is left with the feeling that maybe we never even got to see his very best.

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