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The Enduring Laughs—and Life—of Harold Ramis

My late husband Roger Ebert noted potential in Harold Ramis from the moment he awarded four stars to the first film that the "SCTV" star co-wrote, 1978's hit comedy, "National Lampoon's Animal House." "The movie is vulgar, raunchy, ribald, and occasionally scatological," wrote Roger. "It is also the funniest comedy since Mel Brooks made 'The Producers' (1968). 'Animal House' is funny for some of the same reasons the National Lampoon is funny (and Second City and 'Saturday Night Live' are funny): Because it finds some kind of precarious balance between insanity and accuracy, between cheerfully wretched excess and an ability to reproduce the most revealing nuances of human behavior." 

Ramis immediately went on to co-author other landmark comedies including 1980's "Caddyshack" (which marked his directorial debut) and Ivan Reitman's 1981 army satire, "Stripes," in which Ramis starred opposite Bill Murray. Of the latter film, Roger wrote, "For Harold Ramis, who plays Murray's grave-eyed, flat-voiced, terminally detached partner in 'Stripes,' this is a chance, at last, to come out from behind the camera. Ramis and Murray are both former Second City actors, but in Hollywood, Ramis has been typecast as a writer, maybe because he sometimes looks too goofy for Hollywood's unimaginative tastes. In 'Stripes,' Murray and Ramis make a wonderful team. Their big strength is restraint. Given the tendency of movies like this to degenerate into undisciplined slapstick, they wisely choose to play their characters as understated, laid-back anarchists. Murray enlists in the Army in a what-the-hell mood after his girlfriend throws him out, and Ramis enlists because one stupid gesture deserves another."

Three years later, actor Murray and actor/co-writer Ramis re-teamed with director Reitman for the biggest hit of their respective careers, 1984's "Ghostbusters," a horror comedy praised by Roger as "a head-on collision between two comic approaches that have rarely worked together very successfully. This time, they do. It's (1) a special-effects blockbuster, and (2) a sly dialogue movie, in which everybody talks to each other like smart graduate students who are in on the joke. [...] No matter what effects are being used, they're placed at the service of the actors; instead of feeling as if the characters have been carefully posed in front of special effects, we feel they're winging this adventure as they go along."

Yet it was Ramis' 1993 directorial effort, "Groundhog Day," which cast Bill Murray as a grouchy weatherman who finds himself stuck in a time loop, that gave the filmmaker the best reviews of his career. Though Roger initially awarded it an affectionate three stars, he later inducted the film into his Great Movies series in 2005, writing, "Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like 'Groundhog Day' to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something."

Roger enjoyed other directorial efforts by Ramis including 1995's "Stuart Saves His Family," a vehicle for Al Franken's titular "Saturday Night Live" character, which the critic hailed as "a genuine surprise: A movie as funny as the 'SNL' stuff, and yet with convincing characters, a compelling story and a sunny, sweet sincerity shining down on the humor." Roger also favored Ramis' 1999 mob comedy, "Analyze This," which teamed Robert De Niro with Billy Crystal. He wrote that Ramis "is presented with all sorts of temptations, I suppose, to overplay the De Niro character and turn the movie into an 'Airplane!''-type satire of gangster movies. I think he finds the right path--allowing satire, referring to De Niro's screen past, and yet keeping the focus on the strange friendship between two men who speak entirely different languages." Of Ramis' somewhat more straight-faced 2005 crime film, "The Ice Harvest," Roger wrote, "it finds a balance between the goofy and the gruesome, as in a rather brilliant scene in which a mobster who is locked inside a trunk is nevertheless optimistic enough to shout out muffled death threats."

When Ramis passed away on February 24th, 2014, from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, our frequent contributor Peter Sobczynski penned a heartfelt tribute, writing, "What made the news of Ramis' death such a gut-punch, at least from my own personal perspective, was that it meant the loss of not just a great filmmaker but a great Chicagoan as well. After spending time in Hollywood, he moved back to the city with his family. He was a familiar and friendly face on the local entertainment scene who always seemed willing to lend a hand when needed. Over the years, I had the privilege of talking to him several times. He was never anything less than warm, gracious, self-effacing, intelligent, and seemingly without a bone to pick with anyone."

The following year, I invited the late director's widow, Erica Mann Ramis, and "Groundhog Day" producer Trevor Albert to Ebertfest for a special Q&A and screening of clips that honored the comedy icon's life and career. In my open letter penned to Roger, who passed away in 2013, I wrote, "Displayed at Harold's funeral was a violin that he had made by hand and taught himself to play. It was on a table. But Harold had to first teach himself to build the table in order to have a surface on which to construct the violin. That's the kind of man Harold was. [...] One of the last conversations you and Harold had was about the transcendent nature of Charlie Kaufman's movie 'Synecdoche, New York.' You both saw a higher meaning in every frame."

This past Groundhog Day in Chicago, Erica joined Bill Murray and other members of the "Groundhog Day" cast to honor Harold's life at Harry Caray's Tavern on Navy Pier. RogerEbert.com Literary Editor Matt Fagerholm spoke with many of the participating actors beforehand, including Stephen Tobolowsky, who stole all of his scenes as the uproariously irritating insurance salesman Ned Ryerson. "I was still feeling very self-conscious about the size of my performance," said Tobolowsky. "So in between takes, I sit down next to Harold and ask, 'Am I too broad? Am I being too big with this?' Harold starts laughing, and he says to me, 'Stephen, let me tell you something about comedy. In Jewish comedy, there is the schlemiel and schlimazel. The schlemiel is the guy who always spills soup, the schlimazel is the guy who always gets soup spilled on him. That is the form of comedy universally. In this, you are the schlemiel. You could do anything you want, as big as you want. Bill is the schlimazel, he has to be the world. You are the aberrant force.'"

At the celebration of Harold this month, in which February 2nd was officially declared Harold Ramis Day in Chicago, Murray said, "I think it's great that we're here, and it was nice of Harold to make us a nice, mild day today. He's up there stirring the clouds around and making that low pressure move out over to Indiana. It's a beautiful city and I got to know Harold through my brother Brian Doyle-Murray. They took care of me and let me hide out in Old Town when I was just a troublemaker from the North Shore. I learned a lot of from those guys—from Brian, Harold, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Russ Little—those guys were wonderful and very kind to me, and it's the kindness of those people that really made it possible for me to avoid the penitentiary and have some sort of a life. [...] Your job as an actor is to take what you're given and make it better, and we all got to do that because Harold made it possible."

When Erica took to the mic, she shared a letter sent to her from former president Barack Obama that read, "To everyone gathered to celebrate Harold Ramis and 'Groundhog Day,' as a Chicagoan and a fan of great movies, I am so glad that this is how you have chosen to celebrate Harold Ramis Day. Harold's movies make us laugh, but they also do more than that. They encourage us to root for the underdog, to identify with the outsider and to remember that we are always capable of changing for the better. So enjoy the festivities, that's what Harold would've wanted, and who knows? Maybe you'll wake up tomorrow and get to do it all over again."

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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