Typically, I hate this kind of thing. When someone dies, it’s hard to write about them, even if they were someone you never got to meet in person. But people make an impact, and sometimes it’s so big that when that person is gone, all the words and memories and feelings bubble to the surface and demand to be acknowledged. So it goes.
I don’t know much about Harold Ramis’ early life, or his personal life outside of film. I only know him from a handful of films from my childhood: as a goofy-looking, lanky actor in Ghostbusters and Stripes; as a writer for Animal House and Meatballs; as a director on National Lampoon’s Vacation and Caddyshack. Ramis had a hand in some of the great comedies of the early 1980s, which was an incredibly influential time for the genre. There’s a reason he’s held in such high regard: he was FUNNY, and genuinely so. He looked like an average guy and he seemed like an average guy. He wasn’t smug, like Bill Murray (who corners the market on smug), and he didn’t have a fast-talking, gee-whiz quality like Dan Ackroyd. He was dry, wickedly dry, with the occasional appearance of an eyebrow-waggling skirt-chaser. Ramis was almost like a long-lost Marx Brother, out of time but not out of place.
My first encounter with Ramis would have been as an actor, I suppose. I suspect the first thing I saw him in was Ghostbusters (1984), although I hated that movie when I was a child. I am not too proud to admit that I was terrified of creatures in the fridge, and also of giant flying booger ghosts. But man, Egon Spengler seemed really cool. Not like Bill Murray cool, but like…too cool to react. The majority of Egon’s lines are in deadpan. There’s no smirking, no wink to the other characters or even to the audience. This makes it even funnier when EPA man Walter Peck (William Atherton, a.k.a. “1980s Movie Asshole”) accuses the Ghostbusters of causing a major explosion; Egon’s reaction of “YOUR MOTHER!” as he jumps forward to take a swing at Peck is unexpected perfection.
I don’t know if I saw Caddyshack (1980) or Vacation (1983) first. Probably Caddyshack, but really, with so many of these films, they feel like they’ve just always been there. I feel like I was born knowing these films, that’s how far back my memory goes. Anyhow, these were the two films where I first noticed Ramis as a comedy director. That came much later than my childhood, of course, but I knew somewhat early on that his name was attached, not just as a director but as a writer. I wouldn’t call these “smart” comedy films, whatever that means, but they were — are — funny. Caddyshack is the ultimate golf film: endlessly quotable on and off the greens. Based on the exploits of a young Brian Doyle-Murray and his brothers Bill and John during their time as caddies in Illinois, the film cuts to the heart of both the love of the game, and the uncertainty of life after high school.
Vacation is a different beast entirely. It’s the ultimate family road trip nightmare, based on John Hughes terrifyingly hilarious story “Vacation ’58,” a fictionalized version of a vacation Hughes took with his family to Disneyland when he was a child. Every cringe-worthy moment in Vacation: the dog leashed to the car bumper, the dead aunt riding on the luggage rack, the holdup at the amusement park — all that and more was actually toned DOWN from Hughes’ original story. Ramis, uncredited with Chevy Chase, took that horror story and made it into one of the most enduring comedy films of all time. No small feat, that. The film does more than flirt with black comedy on occasion, and there are moments that make me wonder how it ever escaped the studio.
I think if anyone else had been in the director’s chair, the film would have fallen apart. One of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories comes from this film. Filming of the early scenes, where the family is preparing to leave for their cross-country trip, was shot during a particularly sweltering summer. An eventually-unused scene of Chevy Chase packing the luggage on top of the car while it’s still in the garage was not going very well, and everyone was becoming increasingly miserable, most of all Chase. Eventually, Chase snapped, and began throwing luggage at the crew and the equipment, aiming the last bag at the camera, with Ramis behind it. When the overheated actor launched the bag at the director, Ramis calmly blocked it with his foot, nonchalantly telling Chevy to mind the expensive equipment. Even when everyone else was running to the point of over-exertion, Ramis kept it cool.
And that’s how I’ll always think of Harold Ramis: cool. Chill. Laid back, but with a keen sense of humor. I’ve long admired that about him; I’ve looked up to him as a comedic inspiration since I was a very little version of me. It seems wrong to say that I’ll miss him, because his work isn’t going away. We’ll always have Groundhog Day. We’ll always have Back to School. We’ll always have SCTV. He will never be forgotten. Thanks, Harold Ramis, for everything.