Thus far the Badass Hall of Fame has only featured inductees whom are famed for their martial prowess. It’s been all killing and maiming to this point, but I don’t always judge people just by how many people they can off in a film. Instead I can levy the badass moniker for a variety of other reasons. Such as services to cinema, comedy or life in general. That’s why this month’s entry is none other than the late great Harold Ramis, whom sadly died in February of this year.
My first true encounter with Ramis’ work was Ghostbusters. I’m too young to have seen it upon release in 1984, but have many fond memories of watching it over and over again on a crackly VHS recording when it originally aired on British TV. I must have watched it so much that I can even remember the commercials throughout (including this one here).
Another childhood favourite was Stripes (1981), a film about two roguish layabouts (Ramis and Bill Murray) who join the army on a whim (as you do). Preceding Police Academy by years, they turn the bumbling recruits (including John Candy and Judge Reinhold) into badass versions of themselves, and torment the resident drill sergeant played by Warren Oates. Stripes features a host of crude adult jokes and plenty of exploitative nudity, something I didn’t notice (or appreciate) as a kid. I just loved watching Murray fucking around with everyone. What effect he’s had on my personality as an adult I can only imagine…
However what Ramis can really be remembered for is his extensive work behind the camera.
Ramis got his start in Chicago’s Second City comedy group, and later went to work for Playboy magazine as a jokes editor. Teamed with comedy legends in the making, John Belushi and Bill Murray in the Second City group, he began working for The National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1974.
He then went on to co-write National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978. If you’ve never seen the film (in that case you’ve never lived), it is the quintessential college comedy, which laid the tracks for the likes of Road Trip or American Pie decades later. It features the young John Belushi as the drunken leader of a bunch of under-achieving frat boys, whom clash with the faculty over their ridiculous behaviour.
The film did crazy business, and catapulted the likes of Belushi to the top of the A-list. It also enabled Ramis to co-write Meatballs, which not only gave Bill Murray his first leading role, but started a six film collaboration between the two. Meatballs casts Murray as Tripper Harrison, a counsellor at a budget summer camp. He makes friends with a lonely boy, Rudy Gerner (Chris Makepeace), and teaches him confidence, and how to get the bitches.
If you’ve ever seen a TV show or a film mocking summer camps or the like, the chances are it will be sending up Meatballs in some way. It was that important. It’s also eerily similar to 2013’s The Way, Way Back, only with spaceman Sam Rockwell in Murray’s role.
Following Meatballs Ramis made his directorial debut with the cult classic Caddyshack. Set on an exclusive golf course, the nouveau riche members are pitted against the poor staff in various set gags and storylines. Michael O’Keefe caddies for Chevy Chase’s playboy golfer, and this time Murray takes a back seat as Carl Spackler, the groundsmen with an insane obsession of forcibly removing a gopher infestation.
Again, the film hit gold at the box office. But this continued success was nothing compared to what was to come next.
This time teaming with Dan Aykroyd, Ramis co-wrote the legendary Ghostbusters in 1984. Combining Aykroyd, Ramis and Bill Murray, the trio of science tutors-turned-paranormal investigators bridged the gap between adult humour, state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects, and brilliant story-telling.
Joined by Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver, and Ernie Hudson, it smashed studio records, and became the second highest grossing film of 1984 (behind only Beverly Hills Cop). It’s interesting to note that their original concept feature Belushi, Candy and Eddie Murphy. Sadly Belushi died, and the rising stars of the others kept them from committing to the picture.
Ghostbusters, as I mentioned above, is where I first saw Ramis in action. He plays super-nerd Dr. Ego Spengler, alongside Murray’s playful under-achiever (I sense a theme here) Dr. Peter Venkman, and Aykroyd’s enthusiastic Dr. Ray Stantz. Ramis plays Spengler as super straight, and no-nonsense. This runs totally contrary to the perpetual smile that adorned Ramis’s face in every one of his other films. In fact looking at him, he appears less like a scientist, and more like a Jewish Christian Bale.
Spengler has few hobbies, including a distaste for literature, a fascination in the mass of twinkies, and enjoys collecting spores, molds and fungus. He also creates all the high-tech gear used by the Ghostbusters, including the proton packs. Despite his obvious intelligence (the fact he wears glasses clearly elevates him above his contemporaries), he still isn’t above succumbing a bit of a fear when it comes to testing his inventions, as shown below:
He plays the role as deadpan as can be. His reaction of “That’s great Ray, save some for me” when he’s told Murray has been slimed by a ghost is perfectly executed. Yet, this reserved nature also makes his occasional outbursts even funnier.
As a kid, I never appreciated much of this humour. I just thought it was cool that some guys had created a business catching ghosts. Now I just marvel at the masterful humour that Ramis and Aykroyd injected into an already brilliant concept. Ghostbusters still stands as one of the all-time great movies. The script is water-tight, with not a shred of wasted dialogue or action, and only the music and CGI would date it now.
The inevitable sequel fell a little short of this lofty achievement in 1989, but Ramis was to return to form four years later with his self-professed masterpiece, Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day, for the uninitiated, is a film about Bill Murray’s (you guessed it) underachieving, wise-ass TV weatherman Phil Connors, who is having the worst day of his life. The problem is that the day keeps repeating itself again and again. Gold.
Behind the scenes, Ramis originally took writer Danny Rubin’s bizarre idea (which originally began mid time loop) and adapted it to a three act studio film. It features Murray re-enacting the same day and how he reacts to the fact he cannot change anything.
Typical of Murray characters, Connors first uses the knowledge to his own benefit, as it enables him to lie, cheat, steal and sleep with anyone he chooses. But this hedonism only satisfies him so long, and he thus decides to commit suicide to release him from the torment. However, each ever-escalating act of self-termination only results in him waking up the next morning, bright and early, 6:00 am sharp.
Eventually Murray decides to use the time (which Ramis would later state is 40 years – that’s 14601 Goundhog Days!) to better himself.
The film is equal parts funny, meaningful and curious, and begs the question of “what would you do” were you in the same position. You can draw whatever conclusion you wish from it as it doesn’t ever attempt to explain why Murray is trapped. His explanation that he is a God may be apt, as numerous other religious groups also seem to think.
Sadly, due to a conflict of interest on the film, Ramis and Murray fell out. This New Yorker article speculates that it may be related to Murray’s collapsing relationship with his wife at the time. Regardless, they didn’t apparently speak for the next 11 years.
During this time, Ramis continued to work, with notable directing credits including Analyze This, Analyze That, Year One, and the Ice Harvest. He also appeared in comedies High Fidelity (alongside Dan Aykroyd), Knocked Up, and had a brief but great cameo in 1997’s Oscar winning best film, As Good As It Gets.
In 2010 he suffered an infection that cost him the ability to walk. The disorder, vasculitis – an autoimmune inflammatory problem – would continue to strike again and again over the next few years, before finally silencing the great man for good on February the 24th. He was 69 years old.
His leaves behind a wife, three children, and a legion of adoring fans. While Ghostbusters 3 seems destined to continue without him, despite his death and director Ivan Reitman bowing out, I truly hope they don’t bother. Why ruin a good thing?
I for one am devastated I will never get to meet him, shake his hand or tell him how much I have loved his work. Not only did he make being a geek or wearing glasses cool, but he got the girls in his films. He may not have been able to kick ass, but his work was certainly badass – which is something we can all aspire to.
Finally, I leave Bill Murray’s words on his friend and long time collaborator:
“Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show, Off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”