Filmmaker, actor and Second City alum Harold Ramis, best known for the comedies “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Stripes” died early Monday at his North Shore home. He was 69.
“Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my brilliant, gifted, funny friend, co-writer/performer and teacher,” Mr. Ramis’s longtime creative cohort Dan Aykroyd said. “May he now get the answers he was always seeking.”
Fellow Chicago-trained actor and colleague Bill Murray said Mr. Ramis “earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”
A spokesman for United Talent Agency, which represents Mr. Ramis, said he died of complications from an autoimmune inflammatory disease and that his family was by his side.
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Mr. Ramis co-wrote “Animal House” and “Meatballs,” and directed “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day.” He also co-wrote “Ghostbusters,” in which he appeared (as the dry and wry Dr. Egon Spengler) with fellow Second City alums Aykroyd and Murray. More recently, he directed “Analyze This,” which stars Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro, and four episodes of NBC’s “The Office.”
Of those, 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (starring Murray) earned Mr. Ramis the most wide-ranging appreciation, with everyone from comedy mavens to religious scholars weighing in on its impact and meaning. A stage musical adaptation is in the works.
Born in Chicago in 1944 to parents who owned a liquor store on the West Side, Mr. Ramis graduated from Senn High School in 1962, was a substitute teacher for a short time and went on to edit jokes for Playboy magazine.
Second City in Old Town, where Mr. Ramis learned rules of improvisation under legendary director Del Close and on whose now-storied mainstage he began his comedy education in earnest, extended condolences in a statement posted on its web site.
“It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of our dear friend and [alumnus] Harold Ramis. It is a great loss for his family and the film and entertainment communities. Our thoughts are with his wife Erica and their family.”
Second City’s CEO and executive producer Andrew Alexander offered sentiments of his own:
“It is impossible to overstate the personal and professional influence that Harold Ramis has had on all of us at The Second City. He was a natural leader, a trusted friend and so generous with his own talent that he made everyone he ever worked with look like a genius. We are devastated to lose him so young, but we were all enriched by the years we did get to partake of his particular brilliance.”
During his days at Second City, where Mr. Ramis acted with the likes of John Belushi and Joe Flaherty, Groucho Marx — one of Mr. Ramis’s comedic heroes — attended a show. Here’s how he recalled their run-in several years back in a book about the comedy theater.
“Groucho saw our show in Chicago, and it didn’t go well. I idolized the Marx Brothers and was so disappointed in our performance that I didn’t even go out into the house to meet him. I went into the bar to hide out, and after a few minutes, [Joe] Flaherty came out to look for me. “Groucho wants to see you,” he said. “Groucho asked for me specifically?” “Yes,” Joe said. “What did he say?” “Groucho asked, ‘Where’s the guy with the wig and the false nose?’
“I did go out to meet him then,” Mr. Ramis added, “and he was quite old and not very pleasant. He teased me about my hair and nose again, but I guess I was glad that he actually showed some interest in me, however unpleasant it was.”
Flaherty said in 2008 that Mr. Ramis was “the brain of the group. Very funny. Witty. Although he always claimed that he wasn’t an actor, that he was just basically a head, a brain, walking around onstage.”
After his Second City stint, which lasted until 1972 and included an extended break, Mr. Ramis also wrote for the National Lampoon Radio Hour (in New York) and the fabled comedy sketch show SCTV — a national launching pad for such future comedy standouts as Flaherty, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy.
“He was essential not only because he was head writer and a performer on the show, but because he was so nurturing,” Alexander, who was in charge of SCTV, told the Sun-Times. “He brought the best out in everybody. . . .he was able to nurture people in such a non-threatening way. Everybody loved working with him. Everybody respected him. . . .his ego was always left at the door.”
“Animal House,” co-penned with Doug Kenney and starring Belushi, was Mr. Ramis’s big break on the big screen. His career blossomed quickly from there and his ambition never waned.
As he told Tad Friend of the New Yorker in a lengthy 2004 profile, “I have this need to keep impressing people—and myself. ‘God, he can play the guitar and wield a sword!’ I always wanted to experience everything — to be a millionaire by the time I was forty, to be Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, to conquer every woman and have her fall in love with me, to be president, to succeed in every conceivable way that our society has to offer.”
A quarter-century after his onscreen debut, alongside Murray in “Stripes” (which he also co-wrote), Mr. Ramis did a running commentary of that hit film for a 2005 Sun-Times feature. By then he’d been living for nine years on Chicago’s North Shore and working out of offices in Highland Park, where he kept a collection of antique swords and other memorabilia.
“I’m part of this community,” he said of his local roots in 2009. “But I feel this connection with everyone, everywhere I go. One consequence of being well known is it makes everywhere I go feel like a small town.”
“In Los Angeles,” he told the New Yorker several years prior, “Steven Spielberg walks in and you’re nothing. Here, there’s nobody better than me. There’s a few Bulls around, and the Cusacks, but, basically, I’m it!”
Mr. Ramis is survived by his wife, Erica Mann Ramis; sons Julian and Daniel; daughter, Violet, and two grandchildren.
Contributing: Maureen O’Donnell, AP
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