Chicago actor, writer Harold Ramis dies at 69

February 24, 2014

The Associated Press

AP/File
In this Dec. 12, 2009 file photo, actor and director Harold Ramis laughs as he walks the Red Carpet to celebrate The Second City's 50th anniversary in Chicago. An attorney for Ramis said the actor died Monday morning, Feb. 24, 2014, from complications of autoimmune inflammatory disease.

"Caddyshack." ''National Lampoon's Animal House." ''Ghostbusters." ''Groundhog Day." ''Stripes."

Those titles are some of the most beloved and widely quoted comedy classics of the last 30 years. They're also Harold Ramis' filmography.

Ramis, the writer-director-actor who quietly and often off-screen created an unparalleled and hugely influential body of laughs, died Monday. He was 69.

He suffered for several years from an autoimmune disease that caused inflammation and damage to his blood vessels, and died at his home in the Chicago suburbs, surrounded by family and friends, his talent agency said.

His death rattled a modern comedy world Ramis helped build. His legacy as a father figure to generations of comedians was appropriately captured in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," in which Ramis was cast as Seth Rogen's father, Apatow said, "because we all saw him as the dream dad."

"Harold Ramis made almost every movie which made me want to become a comedy director," Apatow said. "These films are the touchstones of our lives."

Chevy Chase, whom Ramis directed in "Caddyshack" and "National Lampoon's Vacation," called him "a great man who shunned unnecessary Hollywood-type publicity."

"It was Harold who acted out and gave me the inspiration for the character of Clark Griswold," Chase said Monday. "I was really copying Harold's impression of Clark."

Admittedly lacking the dashing leading-man looks of some of his peers, Ramis was memorably nebbish: curly haired, gangly and bespectacled. He played Ghostbuster scientist Egon Spengler (naturally, the brainy one with all the ideas), and Bill Murray's Army recruit buddy in "Stripes."

But the Chicago native and early member of the improv comedy troupe Second City was a far larger force behind the camera. The intellectual Ramis was the Zen master to a wild, improvising comic storm that included Murray, John Belushi, Chase and Dan Aykroyd.

He co-wrote and directed "Caddyshack," ''Groundhog Day," and "Analyze This." He helped pen "Meatballs," ''Stripes" and "Ghostbusters."

Ramis could be reasonably credited with making more people roll in the aisles from the late '70s to the early '90s than most anyone else. "He earned his keep on this planet," Murray said in a statement.

With a Baby Boomer countercultural bent, Ramis — who escaped Vietnam service, he claimed, by checking every box on the medical history form — pushed against institutions: the college dean of "Animal House," the country club members of "Caddyshack," the drill sergeant of "Stripes."

Ramis, who became a Buddhist in midlife, was known to have a spiritual pull, on full display in the wry but earnest existentialism of "Groundhog Day" (1993), in which Murray re-lives a day until he finally gets it right. His "Ghostbusters" co-star and Second City mate Aykroyd said: "May he now get the answers he was always seeking."

The son of Chicago shopkeepers, Ramis was born Nov. 21, 1944, in Chicago. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, he briefly worked in a mental institution. He often said, seriously, that the experience helped prepare him for working with actors.

Ramis would help recalibrate the epicenter of American comedy at Second City, which he joined in 1969. He was soon followed by many of his later collaborators: Belushi ("Animal House"), Murray and Aykroyd. In 1976, he became head writer for the Canadian-based comedy show Second City Television, or SCTV.

Chicago, he later said in the book of interviews "And Here's the Kicker," conditioned him to living "slightly on the outside of the mainstream."

"New York and L.A. were the real centers of culture in America, and we were kind of a sideshow," Ramis said. "There's always more comedy in being alienated than in fitting in."

He soon moved on to bigger projects — the legendary 1978 comedy "National Lampoon's Animal House," which he wrote with National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. Their motto was "broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy."

With Murray as the comic lead, the Second City alums paired up for numerous projects: 1979's "Meatballs," 1980's "Caddyshack" and 1981's "Stripes." The "Cinderella story" scene in "Caddyshack" came from Ramis suggesting Murray talk to himself like a sports announcer.

Though Ramis had once harbored lead actor dreams, he realized his better fit was as a straight man or a director of more uninhibited talents like Belushi or Murray. "As a person of intellect, I could complement John or Bill, who were people of instinct; I could help guide and deploy that instinct," he told The New Yorker in 2004.

Perhaps the most well-known of their collaborations was "Ghostbusters." Ramis helped write the 1984 movie, in which he stars as the commonsense member of a group of parapsychologists who try to catch ghosts.

"The best comedy touches something that's timeless and universal in people," Ramis told The Associated Press in a 2009 story about the 50th anniversary of Second City. "When you hit it right, those things last."

After "Groundhog Day," Ramis and Murray fell out and didn't speak for years. The cause of the rupture between the pair, one of the most storied actor-director teams in comedy, isn't widely known, as neither has ever spoken much publicly about it. The Chicago Tribune reported that Murray visited Ramis during his illness.

Ramis' last hit was "Analyze This," the therapist comedy starring Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro. Like many of his later films (1996's "Multiplicity," 1995's "Stuart Saves His Family"), it hinged on a story of personal redemption.

Some of his last efforts (2000's "Bedazzled," 2009's "Year One") were notable flops. "The Ice Harvest," a 2005 comedy starring John Cusack, was one of the darkest comedies for Ramis, whose humor — however full of rebellion and absurdity — was nearly always optimistic. A third "Ghostbusters" with director Ivan Reitman has long been rumored, but is yet to materialize in any substantial way.

Ramis is survived by his wife, Erica Ramis; sons Julian and Daniel; daughter Violet; and two grandchildren.