Harold Ramis not only may be the most successful comedy writer-director that Chicago has produced, but some wouldn't even confine that statement to Chicago.
“Harold was clearly the most successful comedy writer-director of all time,” said Tim Kazurinsky, who followed Ramis at Second City and later became his friend. “The number of films that he has made that were successful, that were blockbusters, nobody comes close. Even in light in of that, he was more successful as a human being.”
Ramis' career was still thriving in 1996, 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, when he decided to move his family back to the Chicago area, where he grew up and had launched his career.
On Monday, Ramis was surrounded by family in his North Shore home when he died at 12:53 a.m. of complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels, said his wife, Erica Mann Ramis. He was 69.
Ramis' serious health struggles began in May 2010 with an infection that led to complications related to the autoimmune disease, his wife said. Ramis had to relearn to walk and suffered a relapse of the vasculitis in late 2011, said Laurel Ward, vice president of development at Ramis' Ocean Pictures production company. He never fully recovered.
Ramis leaves behind a formidable list of achievements, with writing credits on such enduring comedies as “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” (1999).
Previously he was the first head writer (and a performer) on Second City's groundbreaking television series “SCTV,” and more recently he 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.
“When I was 15, I interviewed Harold for my high school radio station, and he was the person that I wanted to be when I was growing up,” said Apatow, who would cast Ramis as Seth Rogen's father in “Knocked Up” and would produce Ramis' final movie, “Year One” (2009). “His work is the reason why so many of us got into comedy. We grew up on ‘Second City TV' and ‘Ghostbusters,' ‘Vacation,' ‘Animal House,' ‘Stripes,' ‘Meatballs' (which Ramis co-wrote). He literally made every single one of our favorite movies.”
Ramis also left behind a reputation as a mensch and mentor.
“He's the least changed by success of anyone I know in terms of sense of humor, of humility, sense of self,” the late Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, who began working with Ramis in 1969, said of him in 1999. “He's had enormous success relatively, but none of it has gone to his head.”
Ward recalled that when she first began working for Ramis 15 years ago as his assistant, he had to be in California for a month, and he told her that although he didn't need an assistant out there, she should go anyway because it would be a good experience for her, and he'd make sure her expenses were covered.
“He just did it for me,” she said. “He loved teaching people. He loved helping people. He loved seeing people succeed.”
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.
Richard Christiansen, his Daily News editor (and later Tribune theater critic and entertainment editor), recalled one assignment in which Ramis covered a rock concert attended mostly by authority-scorning teenagers. “When it was over, he noted that the kids came out of the concert, and the parents were waiting for them in their cars to drive them home,” Christiansen said with a laugh. “It was a gift for noticing life's ironies and twists that distinguished his writing eye at the very earliest.”
Ramis also wrote and edited Playboy magazine's “Party Jokes” before and during his Second City days. After some time away from Second City, he returned in 1972 and came to a major realization while acting alongside a relative newcomer in the cast.
“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.”
With his round glasses lending a professorial air, Ramis would become the calm center of storms brewed by fellow actors, playing the bushy-haired, low-key wisecracker to Bill Murray's troublemaker in “Stripes” and being the most scientific-minded “Ghostbuster.” Later roles included the sympathetic doctor of James L. Brooks' “As Good as It Gets” (1997) and the charming “Knocked Up” dad, whose dialogue, Apatow said, was almost all improvised.