‘Groundhog Day’ at 25: How a Minor Holiday Gave Birth to an All-Time Comedy Classic

Some films have become so much a part of the culture that they almost seem like they’re playing on a continuous loop in our minds. Kind of like the loop Bill Murray finds himself stuck repeating in “Groundhog Day.” One of the most-beloved comedies of all time, the 1993 film celebrates its 25th anniversary on Feb. 12.

Just ask co-star Stephen Tobolowsky, who still can’t go anywhere without being recognized for his role as the annoyingly friendly insurance salesman Ned Ryerson.

Even at the ticket kiosk at ancient Roman ruins in the south of France where he was visiting with his wife. “Though the man selling the tickets couldn’t speak English, he knew the word ‘Ned.’”

“‘Groundhog Day’ always and forever is what I am linked to, which is a good thing to be linked to,” said Tobolowsky. “I mean, it’s quite a movie.”

Added to the National Film Registry for being deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” in 2006 and consistently ranking high on lists of best comedy movies, “Groundhog Day” stars Bill Murray as the thoroughly obnoxious Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors, who is less than thrilled that he has to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Penn., only to find himself in a time loop in which he lives the same day over and over again.

Besides Murray and Tobolowsky, the Harold Ramis-directed comedy also stars Andie McDowell as Rita, Phil’s producer whom he pursues day after day after day.

The term Groundhog Day has also taken on a new meaning. Tobolowsky recounted driving to work one day and listening to a news discussion about the government on the radio when someone noted, “It’s like Groundhog Day in Washington.”

“When I heard that I went, ‘They don’t mean it’s like Groundhog Day, they mean it’s a repeated event over and over and over again, which of course has nothing to do with the real Groundhog Day.’ It’s one of the few things in my life where I have seen pop culture usurp reality.”

And just like any great comedy, “Groundhog Day” covers some extremely serious subjects.

Phil goes through every emotion during his time in the loop, from hedonism to depression — he tries to commit suicide countless times — to acceptance to service.

“Harold Ramis told me that the film actually takes place over 10,000 years, based on the Buddhist principle that it takes 10,000 years for the human soul to be perfect,” said Tobolowsky. “And Harold Ramis was a Buddhist.”

Screenwriter Danny Rubin, who, with Ramis, won the BAFTA screenplay award for “Groundhog Day” and earned a Tony nomination for his book of the musical version, explained the organic roots of the idea was “me telling a story of a man’s life, a man having a very, very long life. It was an experiment in my mind about eternity and whether a man like Phil Connors could change and maybe, if he lived long enough, he would.”

He came up with the idea of using a repeating date because “it was such a powerful combination of thinking of a real life and how you can get that by repeating the same day” and it also made “eternity a little less cumbersome for the sets and the actors.”

Rubin choose Groundhog Day for several reasons. “It created a character for Phil, someone coming from out of town and stuck there. It is a holiday people are vaguely aware of and not really celebrated. To me it was a great place to start in my mind. At that time, I joked to myself this will be on television every year like ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.'”

Producer Trevor Albert, who began working with Ramis as his assistant on 1980’s “Caddyshack,” noted that Ramis wasn’t looking for a “Caddyshack” or “National Lampoon’s Vacation” comedy for his next film. He wanted a script that was out of the box.

“This particular agent sent me a piece and said, ‘I don’t represent the writer, but it’s kind of an interesting piece of material, check it out,’” he said.

The original script, recalled Albert, didn’t have the broad appeal of the eventual film. Albert likened it to more of an indie sensibility: “The opening was darker. It required the audience to sort of go with that. I loved that. I think it probably would have been a very good movie in the original form, but I don’t think it would have been as acceptable.”

Originally, Phil was already trapped in the loop at the beginning of the film. “There was a voiceover that kind of helped the audience along, so they wouldn’t get too disoriented,” said Rubin.

Once Ramis wanted to do the film, the script went through many revisions. “The collaboration was fun, very friendly but it was difficult for both of us,” admitted Rubin. “I think we are similar personality types in a lot of ways. We are both friendly and eager to please, but he was coming from a place of being Harold Ramis, the comedy director, kind of ‘Lampoon’ older adolescent kind of comedy. This to me was very funny and serious.”

So, they talked and collected notes from the studio and Rubin did a rewrite which moved some things in the right direction. “Then Harold took it and did a draft and got a greenlight from the studio and cast Bill Murray,” said Rubin. “He and Bill were trying to work in on it and having some difficulties and they called me back to work on it some more.”

“Groundhog Day” wasn’t shot in Punxsutawney, but in Woodstock, Illinois, a town of about 25,000.

“We were looking for a timeless place that didn’t feel like it was too set in any time — sort of a quintessential American town,” said Albert “Obviously, Punxsutawney was the original model, but the town itself didn’t quite look like the town we had imagined.”

One problem was that Punxsutawney didn’t have a town square. Gobbler’s Knob, where Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, is nearly two miles out of town in the woods.

Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club in Punxsutawney, said townspeople probably were confused as to why the town wasn’t used for the film. “But when they heard the reasoning, they understood. Punxsutawney is depicted as a cute, quaint, clean small town and that’s what we think we are.”

Because Ramis loved shooting in Illinois, they began driving through the state looking for the perfect Punxsutawney. But after searching three days, they thought they would never find the right town.

“Then we pulled into downtown Woodstock and got out of the car,” said Albert. “I think it’s a little like love at first sight. “

And Woodstock also had the perfect corner for Phil to encounter Ned and then step into the large pothole of cold water.

“Harold Ramis was unsure as to what he wanted that day to look like,” noted Tobolowsky. “So, Bill and I shot the street scene — there were originally nine of them in the script — in every weather condition. So, Bill and I shot our street scenes in sun, rain, snow and gloom.”

Ramis, he said, eventually decided to make it a gloomy day so “when the snow begins to fall is when time begins again.”

Tobolowsky recalls that shooting conditions in Woodstock were akin to Siberia, so it was particularly nasty for Murray to step into the pothole. To prepare for the scene, Murray wrapped his foot in Saran wrap, then neoprene, then two pairs of socks, and then put on his shoe.

“As soon as the shot was finished, Bill walked off and then came the torque of expletives from Bill until he was rushed into the building where there were three of the women with costumes [department] with blow dryers. They ripped off his socks and ripped off the neoprene. They ripped off the Saran wrap and started blow drying his foot with hot air, so he wouldn’t get frostbite and lose his foot.”

Tobolowsky recalled that Ramis told him that Murray didn’t want to shoot the pivotal scene in which Phil’s eyes open when Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” blasts on the clock radio, and Rita’s arm reaches across him to turn it off.

“They’re like 45 days into the shoot and Bill, and this is through Harold, was saying ‘I don’t want to shoot this scene.”’

Ramis asked him what the problem was. “I don’t want to shoot the scene until I know what I am wearing,’’ Murray told him. “We just spent the night together in my room. Am I naked? Am I wearing pajamas? Am I wearing exactly the clothes I wore the night before?”

So Ramis polled the cast and crew. Half said they were wearing the same clothes, while others suggested he was wearing different clothes indicating something had happened between Rita and Phil.

The tie was broken by a young female crew member. “She said, ‘Bill is wearing exactly what he wore the night before. If you do anything else, it will ruin the movie.’ She was right and that’s how they shot it.”

A lot has been written about “Groundhog Day” being a difficult shoot. In fact, good friends Murray and Ramis stopped talking.

“It was bitterly cold and there was a high degree of difficulty as far as a movie,” explained Albert. “This is not a concept that you’re guaranteed is going to work.”

Murray was also going through a divorce during production. “There were definitely tensions on the set,” said Albert.

The two finally reunited during the last few months of Ramis’ life in 2014.

“I was with Bill just last month and his brother Brian and they had lovely things to say to say about Harold,” added Rubin. “They think fondly of him.”

Since the release of the movie, Albert, Rubin and Tobolowsky have appeared at Groundhog Day activities both in Punxsutawney and Woodstock.

Punxsutawney, which only has about 5,500 residents, has seen an uptick in visitors with tourism numbers ranging from 15-30,000 depending on what day of the week Feb. 2 falls on. The year after the film was released, 35,000 people descended upon the village.

Though they welcome people involved in the movie to the celebration, “It’s not our main focus,” said Donald. “We appreciate what the movie did for Groundhog Day, but the celebration has been going on for 132 years and it’s about Punxsutawney Phil.”

Woodstock usually attracts about 1,000 guests for its Groundhog Day celebration, hailing from all over the country and even as far as Australia. “They want to come and visit the locations and be part of the festivities that they enjoy being depicted in the movie,” said mayor Brian Sager. “They just find it pure enjoyable entertainment and they truly believe there are some lessons learned there in the movie.”

There are also tours during the year where fans see the various locations from the movie. “It’s like going to Ireland for ‘Game of Thrones,”’ mused Albert.

Revisiting the film, one realizes just how brilliant Bill Murray’s performance is as Phil.

“I think his performance in ‘Groundhog Day’ will stand as one of the greatest comedic performances of all time,” said Tobolowsky. “He is able to be both antagonist and protagonist at the same time in the same film. He’s everything that’s horrible and everything that’s wonderful. I’ve never seen anyone able to pull something like that off in a single film and get laughs and get your sympathy. I think it’s gonna stand up as long as films are made.”

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