John Landis on Harold Ramis: He Was Very Angry Not to Be Cast in ‘Animal House’

Director John Landis first met writer-director-actor Harold Ramis in New York in the mid-1970s when he was tasked with overseeing a rewrite of what would become “Animal House.” “Harold was an old-fashioned gag writer who could always come up with a joke,” said Landis.

Ramis died Monday from complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69.

Landis phoned Variety to share his first encounter with the celebrated comedian. His story, as told to our reporter, follows:

Animal House” was written by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller and Harold Ramis. It was written before I was involved and given to me via a young executive at Universal. It was really literally one of the funniest things I ever read. It had a nasty edge like “National Lampoon.” I told him it was wonderful, extremely smart and funny, but everyone’s a pig for one thing. I was hired originally to supervise a rewrite. I flew to New York and to them I was the Hollywood guy, which was funny because I think made two movies, both independent. I had actually just finished shooting “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” and when I met with them, they were such extraordinary guys. They were three very different personalities, all smart and funny, all in college in 1962 in fraternities. I’m a high school dropout.

When I first talked to them it was Harold who grasped instantly what I was saying, that everyone in the movie was obnoxious. My big contribution — it was their script and screenplay — was saying there had to be good guys and bad guys. There can’t just be bad guys, so there became a good fraternity and bad fraternity. It was a long process. Harold wrote the part of Boon for himself [Peter Riegart was cast in the role]. I didn’t cast him because he was older than the rest of the cast, and someone else would be better. He was very angry with me for a long time. But if you watch Peter’s performance, he’s not playing Boon, he’s playing Harold Ramis.

I invited all three of them, and said please come to Oregon for shooting, because I wanted their help, because they are brilliant. Universal of course, wouldn’t pay for it. I told them I would hire them each day as actors. They could do it for scale and wouldn’t lose any money. Doug and Chris did just that. Doug played Stork, which was very funny. Harold was insulted and didn’t come, which was too bad. We finished production and he saw the finished film [in 1978] and was cool about it. Then it became this huge success and for like maybe two years he very cool to me, very angry with me, which hurt because I totally admired him.

Before “Caddyshack” [in 1980] came out he called me and said, “Now that I’ve directed my first movie, I get it, you were right, I’m not mad with you anymore.” We went to lunch, and he told me he was not angry any longer, which was a huge brick off my back. His footprint in comedy is enormous, he was a huge influence and essential to the careers of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. And as he got older, he had a stronger voice and a tremendous influence. He became this Yoda-like guy. As he grew older he got mellower, and became this wise and calm presence. He was a great wit and it’s just really sad.

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