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Fade Out: Harold Ramis (1944–2014)

By  · Published on February 25th, 2014

Of course it happened in February.

Yesterday, Harold Ramis passed away from complications resulting from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare blood disease. He is survived by his spouse, Erica Mann, as well as his three children and two grandchildren.

He is also survived, for those of us who knew the man’s work but never met him personally, by some of the most influential and game-changing comedies of the past forty years. It’s difficult to know what the careers of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and John Belushi would look like without him. If there had been no Harold Ramis, there would be no Caddyshack, no Vacation, no Groundhog Day. If Ghostbusters could ever have existed sans Ramis in some other form, it’s impossible to imagine quite what that would be. He was, by all measures, a consequential figure in American comedy.

While working as a schoolteacher during the late 1960s, Ramis programmed for TVTV, a Chicago chapter of a guerilla television collective, where Bill Murray and Brian Doyle Murray also contributed. A freelancing gig for the Chicago Daily News led to Ramis’s role as joke editor at Playboy, where he developed his prolific sense of humor. And his work with Second City and friendship with Murray eventually led to his move to New York, where he wrote for SCTV and commandeered the radio program The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured the Murray brothers, Chase, Belushi, Richard Belzer, Christopher Guest and Gilda Radner during its one year of broadcast. Ramis was offered a job following his cohort by writing for Saturday Night Live, but he chose to stay with SCTV.

After successive commercial hits co-writing Animal House and Meatballs, Ramis made his directorial debut with the smash golf comedy Caddyshack. Thus began a hugely successful career writing and directing some of the most celebrated comedies of the 1980s, crafting some of the most oft-quoted lines of the past thirty years, and making sure everybody born after 1965 knew exactly who Bill Murray was.

But in addition to his impressive career as an essential part of the 1980s comedy catalogue, Ramis was also a notable supporting player onscreen – an impeccable straight man who was always able to tailor the most effective reactions from his fellow comedians.

His role as Egon Spengler is ensconced in our collective imaginations, of course, but his walk-ons as doctors and fathers in films like As Good As It Gets, High Fidelity, and Knocked Up proved time and again that Ramis was ever a warm, comforting presence who brightened a scene and inspired a smile, no matter whether or not he said anything funny. His role as mentor seemed natural to anybody who loves comedy: who wouldn’t want this man in their life as a father figure? And for the record, his turn as the Stanford Dean of Admissions in Orange County shows how he could easily shine in the most memorable parts of even the most unremarkable of comedies.

Outside of films, Ramis also directed a few great episodes of the US version of The Office, including “A Benihana Christmas” and “Safety Training.” But by the time Ramis directed the Judd Apatow-produced Year One, another generation of comedy had succeeded him, one that his sensibility no longer quite fit into. Yet the fact that all of us continued to hope and dream for a Ghostbusters threequel, while we stop whatever we’re doing when Vacation or Analyze This appears on cable, shows that audiences were far from through with the humor, imagination, and observations Ramis had contributed and could no doubt continue to.

It’s all too appropriate that Ramis cast himself as a wise-ass Adam in his last film as director; Ramis himself no doubt had his influences, but it’s hard for anybody else to see him as anything but The First Man of Comedy.

Here’s to you, Harold, and whatever tomorrow you went onto.

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