Producer-director Ivan Reitman, whose wildly successful comedies of the ‘70s and ‘80s included the blockbuster spookfest “Ghostbusters,” died in his sleep on Feb. 12 in Montecito, Calif., his family confirmed to the Associated Press. He was 75. The cause of death was not released.
“Our family is grieving the unexpected loss of a husband, father, and grandfather who taught us to always seek the magic in life,” his children, director Jason Reitman, Catherine Reitman and Caroline Reitman said via a joint statement. “We take comfort that his work as a filmmaker brought laughter and happiness to countless others around the world. While we mourn privately, we hope those who knew him through his films will remember him always.”
Born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Canada (where he first met such young comics as his later stars Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis), Reitman made his first major impression as the producer of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), the madcap, wildly successful frat comedy that introduced “Saturday Night Live” star John Belushi to big-screen audiences.
He quickly segued into feature directing, and his first two hits lofted another “SNL” luminary, Bill Murray, to the upper echelon of movie stardom: “Meatballs” (1979), which featured Murray as an anarchic camp counselor, and the service comedy “Stripes” (1981), which co-starred actor-writer Harold Ramis.
As formidable as those pictures were at the box office, they were only a warm-up for Reitman’s biggest smash, which he produced and directed. Co-written by Aykroyd and Ramis, who co-starred with Murray, Moranis and Sigourney Weaver, “Ghostbusters” was the perfect mating of wiseguy humor and creative, big-budget special effects.
Pulling in close to $229 million domestically, it was among the most successful comedies of its time; it spawned a franchise that included a hit 1989 sequel and two new-millennium installments (the second of which, 2021’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” was directed by Reitman’s son Jason and reunited the surviving stars of the original film, with a producing credit for Ivan Reitman.)
Though none of Reitman’s subsequent features scaled similar box-office heights, he maintained his producing/directing profile with a series of comedies that reconfigured the career of beefcake action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Twins” (1988), “Kindergarten Cop” (1990) and “Junior” (1994). He also produced the family-friendly “Beethoven” comedies starring the titular St. Bernard and directed presidential comedy “Dave” starring Kevin Kline.
In the biggest and best of his films, Reitman struck an unusual balance between the deployment of carefully – some said almost obsessively — crafted screenplays and the use of performers such as Belushi, Aykroyd, Murray and Moranis, who came up in the freewheeling improvisation climate of the Chicago improv troupe Second City, “SCTV” and “SNL.”
In a 1993 New York Times feature, writer Randall Rothenberg noted, “Mr. Reitman, [his actors] say, walks a fine line between the control many directors assert over every aspect of a film and the willingness to let his cast — many of whom come from the world of improvisational comedy — fly free.”
Reitman, who deferred to his stars and seldom took the foreground in coverage of his work, said in the same profile, “There’s a moment when the actors can say anything they want, and then, part of the fun for me as a director is to take that raw work and just structure it and rework it and make it conform to the character work and to the plot, which is evolving as well. It’s a way of being a co-writer of a movie as it’s being shot. But it doesn’t allow for the same kind of focused direction and polished style that leads to much recognition for the creator of the film.”
He was born Oct. 27, 1946, in Komárno, Czechoslovakia. His mother survived the Auschwitz extermination camp and his father fought in the Czech resistance. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 to escape the repressive postwar Communist regime.
Raised in Toronto, he attended McMaster University in Hamilton, where he made his first short films; while in school, he encountered many of the future core members of the SCTV troupe – Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin and Moranis. Returning to Toronto after college, he hired Aykroyd to work on a comedy show he was producing at a local TV station, and they became lifelong friends and collaborators.
Moving into film professionally, he produced and directed a horror spoof, “Cannibal Girls,” which starred Levy and Martin; the low-budget 1973 picture was acquired by B-picture legend Samuel Z. Arkoff for distribution. He also produced two of director David Cronenberg’s early horror films, “Shivers” (1975) and “Rabid” (1977).
In 1978, Reitman signed on as the producer of a feature about a misfit fraternity at an uptight ‘60s college co-written by former SCTV head writer Ramis and National Lampoon writer-editors Doug Kenney and Chris Miller. Directed by John Landis, the raunchy off-the-wall comedy “Animal House” ultimately reeled in more than $140 million in the U.S. and lofted Belushi to movie stardom.
Murray, whose loose-limbed anti-authoritarian style was as distinctive as that of his in-your-face former “SNL” cast mate Belushi, cracked the box office coffers open with Reitman’s “Meatballs” (gross: $43 million) and “Stripes” ($85 million). In 1983, Reitman began dusting off a treatment for a paranormal comedy that Aykroyd had written for Belushi, who had died the year before.
Reitman recalled to Rolling Stone in 2016, “It was a very huge, and frankly impossible, movie to actually do. Particularly in 1980. [But] it had this really brilliant idea at its core, which is: Here are a bunch of people looking very much like firemen, doing this important job, and that ghosts existed and it was possible to catch them.”
A highly original and surprising comedy thrill ride, “Ghostbusters” went on to become as ubiquitous as the film’s scared-ghost logo, spinning off a long-running ABC animated series, Ray Parker Jr.’s chart-topping theme song and countless ancillary products. “Ghostbusters II” raked in a comparatively meager $112 million in the U.S.
Plans for a third film went on the back burner with Ramis’ death in 2014. Though director Paul Feig’s all-female reboot of 2016 proved a relative B.O. disappointment, the franchise went on to become truly dynastic with Jason Reitman at the helm.
Reitman went on to work wonders in his comedies with Schwarzenegger, previously best known as the screen incarnation of Conan and such sci-fi action franchises as “The Terminator” and “Predator.” He continued to produce audience-pleasing pictures like the “Beethoven” films and “Space Jam” (1996), the animated/live-action vehicle for hoops star Michael Jordan, but his track record as a director cooled in the late ‘90s, and he increasingly focused on producing.
Reitman’s more recent directorial efforts included his last feature, “Draft Day” with Kevin Costner; “No Strings Attached,” romcom “No Strings Attached” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.”
In 2009, he co-produced “Up in the Air,” a comedy-drama starring George Clooney as a peripatetic corporate downsizing specialist. Directed and co-written by his son Jason, the film garnered six Academy Award nods, including best picture.
Most recently, he co-directed an iPhone Christmas spot with his son Jason, their first directing collaboration.
Reitman is survived by his wife Genevieve; his son Jason, a director; and daughters Catherine, a TV actress-writer-producer, and Caroline.