If you like screen comedy—the raucous and raunchy kind, with lots of four-letter words and flipped birds to authority—then you owe Harold Ramis a huge debt. The Chicago native, who died Monday in his Chicago home at age 69 from complications due to autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, met many of his future collaborators (John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner) at Second City’s legendary improvisational theater; he later wrote and acted alongside them in New York when National Lampoon launched its radio hour program. The Canadian TV show SCTV offered a slightly bigger platform for Ramis’s acting skills and skewed, cutting wit.
It was once he started writing and directing movies, however, that Ramis become a bona fide comedic force. He co-wrote the seminal Animal House (1978) with fellow Lampoon-ers Chris Miller and Doug Kenny; the movie helped launch Belushi into the stratosphere, broke box office records, and turned raunch comedy into a genre. His follow-ups Meatballs (1979) and Caddyshack (1980), the latter also being his directorial debut, took snobs-versus-slobs storylines and made them foolproof plans for minting money. When you think of late ’70s, early ’80s comedy, you’re thinking of Ramis’ sarcastic, snarky voice; to quote a line he wrote for Stripes (1981), “That’s the fact, Jack!”
Most folks would recognize the geeky, bespectacled comedian as the resident science-nerd Dr. Egon Spengler from the gajillion-dollar-making Ghostbusters (1984) and its sequel. More refined comedy fans would point to Groundhog Day (1993), however, as his masterpiece: A Zen-existential comedy in which Bill Murray is forced to relive one day over and over again until he “gets it right,” it was proof that Ramis could be profound without losing his anarchic edge. Then they would point to Analyze This (1999), his mobster-in-therapy farce that eerily predicted The Sopranos, as proof that he was also capable of getting belly laughs without being relying on potty-mouthed gags. Just ask Judd Apatow, or Adam McKay, or anybody else who makes people laugh for a living: When it came to screen comedy, Ramis was a guiding voice and the real deal.
Murray, a frequeny collaborator of Ramis, issued the following statement: “Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”
Ramis passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends in his Chicago area home, where he and wife, Erica Mann Ramis, have lived since 1996, according to a statement released by his agent. In addition to his wife Erica, Ramis is survived by sons Julian and Daniel, daughter Violet and two grandchildren.