In the winter of 1992 I was a copy editor and film critic with the Northwest Herald and living in Woodstock, Illinois. My apartment was two blocks from the Woodstock Square, which is where the majority of Groundhog Day was filmed. This gave me, a lifelong movie fan, a rare opportunity to watch a major studio picture being made, so I visited the set almost daily during the three-month shoot. I remember well seeing director Harold Ramis around the set wearing that enormous black coat shown in the photo. This was an amazing coat. It was huge, puffy and ankle length. If Eddie Bauer designed a wizard’s robe, it would be that coat.
Ramis was wearing that coat when he walked into downtown Woodstock’s tiny excuse for a mall one afternoon. A little boy looked up at him gobsmacked and shouted, “Mom, that’s a Ghostbuster!” Ramis laughed and waved at the boy.
Harold Ramis died earlier this week of a rare disease called autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, which causes the blood vessels to swell. He was only 69. To many, such as that little boy in the Woodstock Square Mall, he will always be a Ghostbuster, but Ramis was a leading player in the 1970s comedy revolution that used raunch as a delivery system for social and political subversion. Imitators, and there were many, just settled for raunch.
I had the opportunity to interview Ramis several times, the first when he was promoting Groundhog Day in 1993.I told him that I witnessed the encounter with the little boy in the mall, and Ramis noted with bemused pride that Egon Spengler was the top selling Ghostbusters action figure.
Ramis got his start in movies co-writing National Lampoon’s Animal House, and a few years later he would direct National Lampoon’s Vacation, one of his biggest hits. He first worked with Groundhog Day star Bill Murray on The National Lampoon Radio Hour as well as a stage revue, The National Lampoon Show, in the mid-1970s. The National Lampoon played a major role in Ramis’ early success. So, during that 1993 interview, Ramis expressed a little annoyance and a little more worry that Groundhog Day was opening against a National Lampoon movie, Loaded Weapon 1 (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Emilio Estevez). Fortunately, in one of its infrequent moments of taste, the American moviegoing public went with Groundhog Day that weekend.
In my encounters with him, Ramis was always funny, thoughtful, polite and engaging. He was a pleasure to interview. You could have a real conversation with the man. You did not get the feeling he was feeding you the same answers he gave the last five journalists who were granted 20 minutes of his time.
Harold Ramis was a comic mastermind, one of the originators of the funniest television show of all time, SCTV. With Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes (he wrote all four and directed Caddyshack), Ramis shaped the film comedy of my generation. I admit that while many of my peers will still quote Animal House and Caddyshack at will, I was partial to Meatballs. Back in those days, I couldn’t relate to college, country clubs or the Army, but I sure could relate to summer camp. Meatballs introduced the phrase “mystery meat” into the vocabulary and turned “It just doesn’t matter!” into a mantra. The relationship between Bill Murray and Christopher Makepeace planted the seed for the humanism that would bloom later in Ramis’ career.
Ramis’ comedy matured a little in 1983’s Vacation and matured a lot 10 years later in Groundhog Day. For all of Chevy Chase’s slapstick and leering at Christie Brinkley in Vacation, the laughs are rooted in his sincere if sometimes pathetic quest to the perfect family man. Concerns of middle age had supplanted rebellion in Ramis’ humor.
As for Groundhog Day, it remains not just one of the great American comedies, but one of the great American films of the last 25 years. Its only rival is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also a fantasy, oddly enough). Groundhog Day is a miracle of a movie. Without sacrificing comedy, it reflects Ramis’ spiritual and philosophical curiosity. Its message springs from Buddhism, though all major religions would embrace the movie, and the script (which originated with writer Danny Rubin, who would share final credit with Ramis) follows Bill Murray’s selfish character as he learns through trial and a whole mess of errors how to become a better person, how to take joy in a life of service to others, and how to live each day as if it were the only day that matters. Groundhog Day does this with an apparent effortlessness that can come only from many agonizing hours in the editing suite. It is a spiritual film that doesn’t preach. It smiles and hopes the audience smiles back.
The comic gift that Harold Ramis left us is epic. I don’t know a person who hasn’t laughed as a result of one his movies. From all accounts, Ramis was a genuinely good person, unspoiled by his success and always willing to give. The world has lost more than a comic treasure, the world has lost a good man. Rest in peace, Harold Ramis. Thanks for the laughter, and thanks for showing the way.