Monday, February 24, 2014

Spotlight: Harold Ramis (1944-2014)

Chicago Tribune:
Harold Ramis was one of Hollywood’s most successful comedy filmmakers when he moved his family from Los Angeles back to the Chicago area in 1996. His career was still thriving, with "Groundhog Day" acquiring almost instant classic status upon its 1993 release and 1984's "Ghostbusters" ranking among the highest-grossing comedies of all time, but the writer-director wanted to return to the city where he’d launched his career as a Second City performer.

"There's a pride in what I do that other people share because I'm local, which in L.A. is meaningless; no one's local," Ramis said upon the launch of the first movie he directed after his move, the 1999 mobster-in-therapy comedy "Analyze This," another hit. "It's a good thing. I feel like I represent the city in a certain way."

Ramis, a longtime North Shore resident, was surrounded by family when he died at 12:53 a.m. from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels, his wife Erica Mann Ramis said. He was 69.

Ramis got his start in Chicago, where he made his first step into comedy at the famous Second City comedy troupe. He was a performer and head writer for the legendary "SCTV" sketch comedy show in the 1970s. Later, Ramis’ writing contributions to the comedy world include several staples: "National Lampoon's Animal House" (which upon its 1978 release catapulted the film career of John Belushi, with whom Ramis acted at Second City), "Stripes" (1981) and "Ghostbusters" (in which Ramis also co-starred) plus such directing efforts as "Caddyshack" (1980), "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), "Groundhog Day" and "Analyze This."

Recently, Ramis appeared in the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up as Ben’s dad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and has directed episodes of NBC’s "The Office."

Ramis' comedies were often wild, silly and tilting toward anarchy, but they also were cerebral and iconoclastic, with the filmmaker heeding the Second City edict to work at the top of one's intelligence. This combination of smart and gut-bustingly funny led a generation of comedic actors and filmmakers — including Judd Apatow ("The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," Jay Roach ("Meet the Parents," the "Austin Powers" movies), Peter Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary," "Dumb and Dumber"), Jake Kasdan ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "Orange County," both of which featured Ramis in small roles) and Adam Sandler (who starred in his own wacky golf comedy, "Happy Gilmore") — to cite him as a key inspiration.

The son of Ruth and Nathan Ramis, who owned Ace Food & Liquor Mart on the West Side before moving the store and family to Rogers Park, Ramis graduated from Senn High School and Washington University in St. Louis. For his first professional writing gig, he contributed freelance arts stories to the Chicago Daily News in the mid-1960s. He also wrote and edited Playboy magazine’s “Party Jokes” before and during his Second City days.

When, after some time off, he returned to Second City in 1972 to act alongside a relative newcomer in the cast, Ramis said he came to a major realization.

“The moment I knew I wouldn't be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time," he said in a 1999 Tribune interview. "When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh or to make a point on stage, the language he would use, how physical he was, throwing himself literally off the stage, taking big falls, strangling other actors, I thought: I'm never going to be this big. How could I ever get enough attention on a stage with guys like this?

"I stopped being the zany. I let John be the zany. I learned that my thing was lobbing in great lines here and there, which would score big and keep me there on the stage."

Ramis followed Belushi from Second City to New York City to work with him plus fellow Second City cast member Murray (who would collaborate with Ramis on six movies) on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour." Those three plus Gilda Radner also performed in a National Lampoon stage show produced by Ivan Reitman, who went on to produce "National Lampoon's Animal House" and to direct such Ramis scripts as "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Ghostbusters II" (1989).

After the collapse of his first marriage and the flop of his 1986 comedy “Club Paradise” (with greedy developers as the institutional villain), the Jewish-raised Ramis immersed himself in Zen Buddhism.

"It's my shield and my armor in the work I do," he said. "It's to keep a cheerful, Zen-like detachment from everything."

”Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show off Broadway, 'Meatballs', 'Stripes', 'Caddyshack', 'Ghostbusters' and 'Groundhog Day'," longtime collaborator Bill Murray told Time. "He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”

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