Remembering Harold Ramis one year after his death
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It might be hard to believe, but comedy legend and longtime Chicago-area resident Harold Ramis died one year ago Tuesday in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2014.
The Rogers Park and West Side native, after whom part of a Woodstock, Illinois, theater complex was recently named, called the city’s northern suburbs home for nearly two decades before he died at age 69. The news prompted a flood of tributes from fans and former colleagues. Veteran actor and “Birdman” Oscar nominee (he lost to Eddie Redmayne Sunday) Michael Keaton delivered one just last month.
“Working with him was really good because he was so smart, and he quietly got you to do things that you didn’t really know,” Keaton said in an interview posted on Hitfix.com. “And he was so open to ideas and improv, because that’s where he came from. So he was really a good co-conspirator.”
A couple of weeks ago, Ramis — who famously launch the careers of his fellow Chicagoans Bill Murray and John Belushi — was posthumously given the Laurel Award for screenwriting achievement by the Writers Guild of America. His widow, Erica Mann Ramis, accepted the honor on her late husband’s behalf.
“Harold Ramis changed the face of comedy,” Writers Guild of America West vice president Howard Rodman said on the occasion. “His death last year deprived us of his unique way of seeing the world, at once hilarious and wise.”
Rodman went on to call Ramis’ voice “strong, clear, outrageous in all the best ways.”
Famous for his affable demeanor and iconic body of work, Ramis left behind a number of hugely popular and eminently quotable films (a slew of which star Murray, a Wilmette native) by which he is fondly and laughingly remembered: “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day,” “Analyze This” and many more. In the mid-’70s, he was instrumental in developing the at first Canada-based sketch comedy show “SCTV.”
A well-known mensch, Ramis happily proffered advice to students and anyone else who aspired to success in show business. Get famous where you are before moving to one of the coasts, he often told them. And then there’s this poignant monologue he delivered several years ago at Second City, where Ramis began honing his comedy skills in 1968 while he worked as the Party Jokes editor at Playboy magazine.
“When I graduated college in 1966, my best friend was Michael Shamberg, who’s a very successful television producer and movie producer. And Michael and I made a deal. We shook hands and said, ‘Let’s never take a job we have to dress up for. And let’s never do anything we don’t like. Let’s only do what we like.’ So I followed that path. I only took jobs that I thought really had something for me, where I could either learn or just purely have fun. Second City was like The Fun Job. It was great… Most of my college career was spent sitting around with some of the funniest people I knew, trying to make each other laugh. That was what we did. Grades suffered, but it was fun. That’s what Second City was. That was the job. Someone was now paying me for what we did in college and got in trouble for. So I thought, ‘That’s all I want to do from now one, is be in that room with those talented people. I now tell students, ‘Identify the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to them.’ So I found myself standing next to Brian [Doyle] Murray and Joe Flaherty and John Belushi and then Bill Murray. And [Dan] Aykroyd. And, boy, that paid off great. But when you’re young — rich and famous — you just want to be rich and famous, right? Because that will validate somehow your self-esteem, everything. Then you’ll be worthy, right? So there I am, exactly 40 years old, ‘Ghostbusters’ is on the screens. I’m relatively rich and relatively famous. I can walk down the street in New York and people yell, “Yo, Ray-han!” So I was no happier than I was the day before the movie came out.
“So years later, my rabbi said to me, ‘You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.’ The things we really need are the things that really nurture our souls. A great rabbi story: Start each day with a note in each pocket. And one note says, ‘The world was created just for me today.’ And the other note says, ‘I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe.’ And keep them both, because… neither is true and both are true. So in a way, my career has been completely self-aggrandizing. I’m the most pumped-up, grandiose person in the world and I’m still the same humble schmuck I was when I started. I have no confidence, and yet there’s this body of work that exists behind me that seems to say that I did do something. I feel like I’m starting today on a new career, looking for that next piece of work that’s going to be exciting, that’s gonna mean something today, and that I’m going to enjoy. And I’m going to do it with people that I really love and respect.”