Harold Ramis, seen at the premiere of "Ghostbusters II" in 1989, has died at the age of 69. Credit: Getty Images
Many comics choose to work in one field. Harold Ramis wound up in three. A writer, director and actor (and producer, and even, once or twice, songwriter), Ramis was a fixture of underground and mainstream comedy who had his hands in “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.”
Ramis died Monday, Feb. 24, at the age of 69 from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease involving the swelling of blood vessels. Ramis had been ill since 2010.
Though he was sometimes associated with the Canadian comedy troupe Second City, with whom he appeared on the early, 1970s incarnation of the landmark sketch show “SCTV,” Ramis had his fingers in many pies. Born in Chicago, Ramis first got involved with the guerilla television collective TVTV, which also counted as a member a young Bill Murray, with whom he would frequently collaborate.
Following a stint as a joke editor at Playboy, Ramis wound up with National Lampoon’s radio program and revue, as well as Second City. Ramis was one of the writers and performers on “SCTV” before it was picked up and aired in America. Some of his characters included corrupt TV station manager Maurice “Moe” Green and a not-so-friendly Officer Friendly.
It was movies where he found his greatest success. He was on the writing teams responsible for “Meatballs,” “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Stripes.” He also acted in the latter, sharing the foreground with Murray, with whom he would reunite for “Ghostbusters,” in which he played unfailingly nerdy Egon Spengler. (Never explained was why on the cartoon show, the curiously named “The Real Ghostbusters,” Spengler’s hair color was changed from Ramis’ brown to a blonde pompadour.)
Along with other Second City vets, he provided vocal work for a most non-comedic (at least not intentionally so) project: the animated feature film “Heavy Metal,” aimed at teenage boys who liked monsters, sci-fi, fantasy and very large cartoon boobs.
With “Caddyshack,” Ramis made his debut as a director as well as a writer. He would go on to helm “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Analyze This” (and sequel “That”) and “Groundhog Day.” The latter — in which cranky Bill Murray relives the same day for what could be a handful or even thousands of years — proved one of his biggest and longest-lasting hits.
His directing career put a damper on his acting, though he still cropped up as a warm, smirking, lovely presence in smaller roles in the likes of “Baby Boom,” “As Good As It Gets,” “Orange County” and “Knocked Up,” in which he played (in one scene) Seth Rogen’s dad.
Ramis’ last film turned out to be 2009’s “Year One,” a prehistoric comedy pairing Jack Black with Michael Cera. It was not a hit, and he had his fair share of non-successes, including “Club Paradise” (which featured the eternal team of Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole), “Stuart Saves His Family” (spun off from Al Franken’s oblivious pop-therapy guru Stuart Smalley), the multi-Michael Keaton vehicle “Multiplicity” and the remake of “Bedazzled,” which replaced Dudley Moore with Brendan Fraser.
One of his lesser commercial successes was also one of his best: the 2005 neo-noir “The Ice Harvest,” starring John Cusack as a criminal out for one last, twisty score on Christmas Eve. It was not technically a comedy, but Ramis’ skewed, mordant sense of humor forced its way through the sometimes grim material, giving it a dark and gloomy personality that makes it stand apart from other such films in the post-Tarantino wasteland. In a sense, no one could have made “The Ice Harvest” the way it was except for the guy who made “Groundhog Day.”
Of the future work which Ramis’ death robs us of, there is, of course, the long-promised/threatened “Ghostbusters 3,” which has spent at least 25 years in development hell. Dan Aykroyd had always been keen to do it, while Bill Murray had been very keen not to do it. Ramis’ passing all but assures that we are spared that threequel, however you’d like to interpret that verb.