“I’m at the theater, waiting for rehearsal to begin. I improvised for the first time last night and it didn’t go too badly. I wasn’t overly frightened or desperate…
“Also, I was sort of funny.
“I see John Belushi some outside the theater, but he’s a bit incoherent for me to really become close to him at this point….
— Excerpts from a note on The Second City stationery, handwritten by Harold Ramis and sent to his wife in 1971. The note is reproduced in “Ghosbuster’s Daughter” by Violet Ramis.
To legions of fans, Harold Ramis was the writer and/or director of “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day” and “Analyze This.”
Ramis was Russell Zisky in “Stripes,” Dr. Egon Spengler in the “Ghostbusters” movies, Seth Rogen’s father in “Knocked Up.”
To Violet Ramis Stiel, he was all of those things — but mostly Dad.
Four years after the Chicago-born Ramis died after a long illness, Stiel has published “Ghostbuster’s Daughter: Life with my Dad, Harold Ramis.” It’s a frank, funny and revealing memoir filled with insights about one of the most influential and successful comedy writer-directors in movies.
“My dad and I initially talked about writing a book together about parenting — about existential parenting, to be exact,” Stiel told me.
“Unfortunately, we never got to do it. After he died, there was such a huge sense of loss — not just from me but from people who had never met him. I just wanted to share everything that I learned from him, all the great lessons he taught me.”
Stiel paints a portrait of a greatly gifted comic mind who was a generous, kind, offbeat spirit — culturally Jewish but closer to Buddhist in his beliefs, always interested in exploring life. (His spiritual journeys even involved a foray into the faintly ridiculous Men’s Movement, with Ramis and other khaki-clad, middle-aged dads pounding drums and chanting in his garage. “I was there to make fun of it so he didn’t have to,” his daughter said.)
Stiel, a former teacher and social worker now working full-time as a writer, takes us through the biographical touchstones of her father’s life and career: his courtship and marriage to her mother Anne, starting with their first meeting in San Francisco in 1966; Harold working as a freelance writer for the Chicago Daily News and as the party jokes editor at Playboy when it was still headquartered in Chicago; his work with Second City and, of course, all of the memorable movies.
All great stuff, all well-reported — but the real value of “Ghostbuster’s Daughter” is that it was written by, well, a Ghostbuster’s daughter.
“It’s not a [traditional] biography,” Stiel said. “I don’t pretend to be objective. It’s my story of him and of our life together. I did a lot of research on the movies, but the rest of it was our lived experience.
He “was very generous about including me in his work life. Even though I was young [6 years old] when I was on the set of ‘Ghostbusters,’ for example, it made such an impression on me. There was so much energy on the set. They knew they were changing the game.”
By the time “Ghostbusters” (released in 1984) was filming, Violet’s parents had split up. During filming, she lived with her father in New York City.
Stiel writes of a huge crowd gathered outside the New York Public Library, where director Ivan Reitman was overseeing a sequence in which Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ramis come running down the stairs.
In take after take, something would go wrong — usually a piece of equipment coming loose from one of the Ghostbusters’ costumes. Finally, they got it right, and “the crowd let out a round of applause,” Stiel writes. “It seemed like New Yorkers were rooting for ‘Ghostbusters’ from the start.”
In the book, Stiel discloses a couple of secrets she had never discussed publicly.
When she was 9 and 10 years old, her mother’s boyfriend molested her on numerous occasions. Stiel writes of initially blaming herself but coming to understand she was the victim. “(“He was sick. I was a kid. It wasn’t my fault.”)
“I knew I wanted to tell my whole [story],” Stiel said. “People are getting more used to talking about difficult things like sexual abuse. The ‘Me Too’ movement is out there, so it sort of dovetailed perfectly for me to tell my story.
“If you don’t share the bad stuff, then you’re not really giving the full picture, and you’re not really learning or teaching anything.”
Stiel also reveals her father had a child with director Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Clueless”) in 1977.
Mollie Heckerling was 15 when she learned Ramis was her biological father. Years later, Stiel and her half-sister connected and eventually became close.
“[My father] embraced the mess of his life,” said Stiel. “That can be a very liberating and comforting thing.”
Stiel’s favorite Harold Ramis character was Russell Zisky from “Stripes.”
“Egon [from ‘Ghostbusters’] is great, and all the little parts he did later were wonderful,” she said. “But Russell is just so endearing because I can really see my dad acting with a capital ‘A.’ He was playing his version of a cool guy, so there’s a lot of head-bobbing. It was really great to see him … really contributing his own little magic happening in the background.”
Ramis’ most beloved and acclaimed film was “Groundhog Day,” which only seems to gain respect as the years roll by.
“People identify from all walks of life, all religions, identify with that film,” Stiel said.
There’s an irony in that Ramis and Murray, his longtime friend and collaborator, famously had a falling-out while making a movie about a man who learns valuable lessons about humanity and kindness and the real meaning of life.
“But maybe that estrangement was the right thing,” said Stiel. “They both went on with their lives. And they were able to reconnect at the end. To focus on what went wrong between them misses the point of their collaborations.”
In 1996, Ramis moved back to the Chicago area, where he remained for the rest of his life.
“He lived in L.A. for a long time, but I don’t think he ever felt he belonged there,” Stiel said.
“After he made ‘Groundhog Day’ in Woodstock, he just realized he was a Midwestern guy, and he wanted to go home.
“He loved being in Chicago. He loved talking to people on the street and in the mom-and-pop shops. He was always happy to pitch in and do community work.
“He was just a hometown guy.”