We’ve lost a comedic legend. Actor, director, and writer Harold Ramis—best known for acting in and co-writing Ghostbusters, as well as writing and directing Caddyshack and Groundhog Day—died today in Chicago at age 69.
Ramis grew up in Chicago and attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he wrote his first parody plays before returning to Chicago in 1968. There he began studying and performing with Chicago’s Second City improv comedy troupe and worked as a joke editor at Playboy. His next stop was New York City in 1974, where he worked with Bill Murray on the radio program The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Ramis also gained recognition as both a performer and head writer on the late-night sketch-comedy TV series SCTV.
Then, in 1978, Ramis reached the big leagues. The 1978 film, National Lampoon’s Animal House, for which he was one of three screenwriters, broke every box office record for comedies. His 1993 film Groundhog Day was also well received, and has been named on the Writers Guild of America’s list of greatest screenplays ever written. Ramis’ film career continued through 2009 with the releases of the film Year One and Ghostbusters: The Video Game.
In 2009, Tablet published an excerpt from Mike Sacks’s book, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 18 Top Humor Writers on their Craft and the Industry, in which he spoke with Ramis about comedy, the film industry, and Hebrew school.
Here’s Ramis on growing up in Chicago:
Growing up in what was called the “Second City,” you always felt like you were on the outside looking in. New York and L.A. were the real centers of culture in America and we were kind of a sideshow. There’s always more comedy in being alienated than in fitting in. It’s the alternative comedy posture. It’s what Rodney Dangerfield created with his “I get no respect” routine. The other end of the spectrum isn’t so funny: “I get so much respect.” No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody. I once analyzed all this. Woody Allen was the great comic genius of my early career, and there was a tendency to measure everything against that standard, that kind of posture. He was always writing about losers and schlemiels and shlubs . . . did I just use three Yiddish words in one sentence?
And on the inspiration for 1980’s Caddyshack:
Brian Murray, Bill’s brother and a writer for Lampoon, had caddied when he was growing up in and around Wilmette, Illinois. Brian would talk to Doug Kenney about his country club experiences and Doug could relate because he had worked in a tennis shop in a country club in Ohio. His father was the tennis pro. Doug came to the project from sort of the snobby members’ point of view, although he was not from that ruling class himself. Brian understood it from the point of view of a poor Catholic kid in WASP territory. And I understood it from the Rodney Dangerfield point of view, which was the Jewish outsider. I was on the outside looking in as the unwelcome guest.
In May 2010, Ramis developed an infection related to autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that causes swollen blood vessels. He died today of complications from the disease. His death this year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the release of Ghostbusters, and fans everywhere will certainly be celebrating Ramis’ legacy as an American icon of comedy.
Related: In the Beginning
Lily Wilf is an editorial intern at Tablet.