Ramis followed Belushi from Second City to New York City to work with him and fellow Second City cast member Murray (who would collaborate with Ramis on six movies) on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Those three, Gilda Radner and others also performed in a National Lampoon stage show produced by Ivan Reitman, who produced “Animal House” and directed several Ramis scripts.
Second City co-owner/CEO Andrew Alexander, based in Toronto when he created “SCTV,” said head writer Ramis was largely responsible for what that series became.
“He had a special gift of bringing people along and getting the best out of people and getting people to work together,” Alexander said, adding that when Ramis couldn't move from Los Angeles to Toronto to write the show's second season, Alexander moved the entire writing team — John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Brian Doyle-Murray and Dave Thomas — to California rather than lose his head writer.
Sahlins, who died in June, said he knew from the start that Ramis “would be an important factor in American comedy. He has all the skills and abilities to be funny and to write funny, but he also is a leader, a very nice guy. He was always looked up to, in Second City to being head writer at ‘SCTV.' He was never separate from anybody. He was always one of the boys, but he was the best boy.”
Apatow said he was captivated not just by the spirit of Ramis' movies but also his frequent collaborations with a collective of funny people.
“We noticed this group of friends who were making comedy together — all the ‘SCTV' people and ‘Saturday Night Live' people and National Lampoon people — and that seemed the most wonderful community you could ever be a part of,” said Apatow, who has developed his own group of regular collaborators. “In addition to wanting to be comics, we also wanted to make comedies with our friends.”
As zany as Ramis' early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the military (“Stripes”). 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, Zenlike detachment from everything.”
Ramis' later directorial efforts — starting with “Groundhog Day” and including “Stuart Saves His Family” (1995), “Multiplicity” (1996), “Analyze This” and his “Bedazzled” remake (2000) — reflect a spiritual striving, exploring individuals' struggles with themselves more than outside forces.
Comparing his later to earlier comedies, Ramis told the Tribune: “The content's different, but it comes from the same place in me, which is to try to point people at some reality or truth.”
Ramis used to carry around a sheet titled “The 5-Minute Buddhist,” which sums up such tenets as “The self, the soul, the ego are mental projections, false beliefs ….” Apatow said he got a copy from Ramis and keeps it in his desk.
“He was the nicest man I've ever met, and he taught me so much about comedy and about spirituality and about being a good person,” Apatow said.
Ramis had been living in Los Angeles since the late '70s before he returned to Chicago, basing his production company in downtown Highland Park. He said in 1999 that he was happy to leave the “artificial pressure” of LA.
“I've compared it to high school: Am I popular? Am I cool? Am I in? Who's the in crowd? How do I get into that party?” Ramis said. “These are not things I ever wanted to worry about. Here I'm so liberated from that.”
After unsuccessfully lobbying Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro to film “Analyze This” in Chicago, Ramis finally got his wish to shoot a movie locally with the 2005 dark crime comedy “The Ice Harvest,” which starred Evanston native John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.
Until his illness Ramis was out around town a fair amount, whether cheering on the Cubs and leading the occasional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” or attending theater or appearing at fundraisers or collecting honors. When Second City celebrated its 50th anniversary in December 2009, Ramis joined “SCTV” cast members O'Hara, Levy, Martin, Flaherty, Thomas and Martin Short in a Mainstage set that proved to be the weekend's hottest ticket.
“That voice, that laugh — he was so much fun to perform with,” Short said. “We were so fortunate because it was the following May that he got sick.”
Ramis was quiet about his illness, but friends did visit, including brothers/Second City cast mates Bill Murray, from whom he'd been estranged for years, and Brian Doyle-Murray, who appeared in seven Ramis movies. Short kept in touch as well, saying he was pleased that his friend was able to attend his Just for Laughs performance in 2011. “He got up out of his wheelchair and showed me his progress,” Short said. “He was frailer in his voice but not in his spirit.”
But the past year, Short and other friends and family said, was tough, and now they are dealing with the loss of such an outsized personality.
“He was like the campfire that we all gathered around for light and warmth and knowledge,” said his daughter, Violet Stiel.
“That's the truth,” his wife added.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Ramis is survived by two sons, Julian and Daniel; a brother, Steve; and two grandchildren.
A private service is planned for this week. A public memorial in Chicago is being planned, probably for May.