A goodbye to Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters funnyman and Groundhog Day director.
The death of Harold Ramis this week, at the relatively young age of 69, rocked me and many of my friends to the core. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died, it was the sudden tragic loss of an actor we regard (or will soon regard) as one of the all time greats. But with Ramis’s passing, I feel not only the loss of a great filmmaker, but also a little piece of my childhood as well.
I grew up on the work of Harold Ramis. Not only was he involved in the writing and directing of the stone cold comedy classics Animal House, Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Stripes and Groundhog Day, but probably most importantly to myself and many others, he was also a Ghostbuster. Not to diminish the legacy of this titan of comedy, but for me Ramis will always be Dr. Egon Spengler, parapsychologist.
As a little kid growing up in Australia, I was obsessed with the Ghostbusters. For years I watched and re-watched copies of both Ghostbusters movies that I’d taped off the TV. I had even taken the little black tab out of the cassettes so they could never be recorded over. I memorised every line and every scene (even where the ad breaks were). As a young boy who was still forging his own identity and struggling to find where he fit in the world, the Ghostbusters were iconic role models. Here was a band of ne’er-do-wells, striking back against the establishment who rejected them by doing what ever the hell they liked and succeeding against all odds. Oh, and they drove around in a tricked-out ambulance busting ghosts – how cool is that?
While most people identify with Bill Murray’s character Peter Venkman, I always identified with Ramis’s Egon Spengler. Whereas Venkman is the rock star, Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) is the Good Samaritan and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) is the blue collar Joe, Egon is the deep nerd, something that resonated with me. If the Ghostbusters are a group of guys who live outside society, Egon exists even further out, on the very fringe of social acceptance, and he’s very happy there thank you very much.
This is a man who doesn’t read books because, as he says, “print is dead”. He collects spores, moulds and fungus and constantly calculates every decision he makes. He is also the one who devises the ‘Ecto-Containment Unit’ and is the only one fully aware of the dangerous ramifications of their new line of business (see the brilliant Twinkie scene below). While he does have a weakness for sugary baked goods and can bond with Ray over their shared interests, Egon inhabits a completely different sphere – who else would take a puppy away from a child just to see what would happen?
Egon’s nerdy exterior and anarchic spirit is pure Harold Ramis writ large. He capitalised on his unassuming looks as the straight man to Bill Murray’s whirlwind, but that only thinly masked the erudite and acerbic satirist underneath. Ramis rejected the Judaism of his upbringing, ingested methamphetamine before his physical to avoid the Vietnam War military draft and then joined the ‘guerrilla video’ collective TVTV in the early 70s, which strived to make groundbreaking and experimental media. From there, Ramis briefly wrote jokes for Playboy magazine then moved on to work with the Chicago-based improv comedy group SecondCity, where he met Bill Murray and John Belushi.
The three of them moved on to New York City to join other notable comedians like Christopher Guest and Gilda Radner on the National Lampoon Show, a satirical sketch comedy stage revue. Ramis then became head writer and performer for SCTV, SecondCity’s own sketch comedy show. Rejecting a job on Saturday Night Live (unlike his fellow founding Ghostbusters), Ramis eventually moved from SCTV into feature films, first co-writing Animal House and Meatballs before going on to direct Caddyshack. The rest is history.
Every film Harold Ramis has made, whether as a writer, director or actor, is injected with this same iconoclasm that his immediate exterior perhaps belies, and that is just the way he wanted it. He was a true comedy guerrilla, appearing unassuming or even nebbish while at the same time undercutting our expectations with every turn. Egon Spengler, his greatest role, was the prime example of what Ramis means to the history of comedy and film: calculating and intelligent, with an eye on the bigger picture, but still willing and able to strap on a proton pack and get down into the thick of it. Will he be missed? To quote Egon himself: “Is the atomic weight of cobalt 58.9?”
Featured image: Universal
Inset image: Columbia