Harold Ramis, Thanks For The Laughs

Harold Ramis, a writer, director and actor whose boisterous but sly silliness helped catapult comedies like “Groundhog Day,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” to commercial and critical success, died on Monday in his Chicago-area home. He was 69.

The cause was complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a disease that involves swelling of blood vessels, said Chris Day, a spokesman for United Talent Agency, which represented Mr. Ramis.

Mr. Ramis was a master at creating hilarious plots and scenes peopled by indelible characters, among them a groundskeeper obsessed with a gopher, fraternity brothers at war with a college dean and a jaded weatherman condemned to living through Groundhog Day over and over.

“More than anyone else,” Paul Weingarten wrote in The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983, “Harold Ramis has shaped this generation’s ideas of what is funny.”

And to Mr. Ramis, the fact was that “comedy is inherently subversive.”

“We represent the underdog as comedy usually speaks for the lower classes,” Mr. Ramis once said. “We attack the winners.”
The film critic A. O. Scott discusses the career of the actor and director Harold Ramis, who died Monday. He is best known for his impact on comedy.

Mr. Ramis collaborated with the people who came to be considered the royalty of comedy in the 1970s and ’80s, notably from the first-generation cast of “Saturday Night Live,” including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner.

His breakthrough came in 1978 when he joined Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller to write “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which starred Mr. Belushi and broke the box-office record for comedies at the time. With Mr. Aykroyd, he went on to write “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Ghostbusters II” (1989), playing the super-intellectual Dr. Egon Spengler in tales of a squad of New York City contractors specializing in ghost-removal.

He made his directorial debut with the country club comedy “Caddyshack” (1980) and his film acting debut the next year in “Stripes,” a comedy about military life that he wrote with Dan Goldberg and Len Blum. Mr. Ramis played Russell Ziskey, who, with his friend John (Bill Murray), joins the Army as a lark.

The film is an example of his ability to be simultaneously silly and subversive. At one point Mr. Murray exhorts his fellow soldiers by yelling: “We’re not Watusi! We’re not Spartans — we’re Americans! That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts. Here’s proof.”

He touches a soldier’s face. “His nose is cold.”

Harold Ramis was born in Chicago on Nov. 21, 1944, to parents who worked long hours at the family store, Ace Food and Liquor Mart. He loved television so much, he said, that he got up early on Saturday mornings and stared at the screen until the first program began.

In high school, he was editor in chief of the yearbook and a National Merit Scholar. He then attended Washington University in St. Louis on a full scholarship. Dropping pre-med studies, he went on to earn a degree in English in 1967.

After graduation he got a job as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis and married Anne Plotkin. The two moved to Chicago, where Mr. Ramis worked as a substitute teacher in a rough neighborhood while writing freelance articles for The Chicago Daily News.

In 1968 he was assigned to cover Chicago’s Second City improvisational troupe, which included Mr. Belushi and Mr. Murray. “I thought they were funny,” Mr. Ramis told The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983. “But at the same time I thought I could be doing this. I’m that funny.”

Soon he was hired as jokes editor at Playboy magazine, where he moved up to associate editor. He also began attending an acting workshop and, after two audition attempts, joined Second City’s touring company.

In 1972, Mr. Belushi brought Mr. Ramis and other Second City collaborators to New York to work on the “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” He also participated in the “National Lampoon Comedy Revue,” a stage show that included Second City performers.

Mr. Ramis went on to write for “SCTV,” a Toronto sketch comedy show about a fictional network that became a quick success. After he had taken the job, “Saturday Night Live,” which was just getting started, approached him to be a writer, but he kept his commitment to SCTV.

It was while working with SCTV that Mr. Ramis joined colleagues to write a script on life in a zany college fraternity. After the resulting film, “Animal House,” struck box-office gold, he joined with Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Blum and Janis Allen to write “Meatballs,” a 1979 comedy that starred Mr. Murray as a counselor at a dysfunctional summer camp. It was a hit, although critics said it did not rise to the level of “Animal House.”

“Caddyshack” came next and won critical praise for the acting of Mr. Murray as a grungy greenskeeper, Chevy Chase as a suave playboy, Ted Knight as the club’s stodgy founder, and Rodney Dangerfield as a tactless millionaire.

Visual humor included a scene in which swimmers frantically flee a pool when someone spots a Baby Ruth candy bar floating on the surface. A clergyman is struck by lightning as he thanks God for the best golf game of his life.

Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, praised Mr. Ramis’s direction, saying the movie “tears the lid off the apparently placid life at a WASPy country club to expose bigotry, ignorance, lust and a common tendency to cheat on the golf course.”

Mr. Ramis wrote “Groundhog Day” with Danny Rubin and also directed it. For many reviewers, the film, released in 1993, transcended madcap humor with a comic exploration of a man’s hapless search for meaning in a confusing world. Stephen Sondheim said he would not pursue a musical adaptation of the movie because it would be impossible to improve on perfection.

Another film that drew praise and audiences was “Analyze This” (1999), which Mr. Ramis directed and wrote with Peter Tolan and Kenneth Lonergan. It starred Robert De Niro as a gangster and Billy Crystal as his psychiatrist, and led to the sequel “Analyze That” (2002).

Mr. Ramis’s first marriage ended in divorce.

At the time of his death he was married to the former Erica Mann, who survives him, along with his sons Julian and Daniel; his daughter, Violet; a brother, Steve, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Ramis was multitalented: he was a skilled fencer and a ritual drummer, he spoke Greek to the owners of his local coffee shop and taught himself to ski by watching skiers on television. He made his own hats from felted fleece.

He said he felt pride in having made two — maybe four — films that might earn a footnote in film history. He did not specify which ones.

“That gives you a tremendous sense of validation,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1993, “but at the same time you suffer the possibility that the next thing you do will be awful, and you have to face getting older and I’m not really looking forward to being 77 and being out there directing ‘Caddyshack XII.’ ”