If someone were to compile a definitive list of the best comedies Hollywood released between the late 1970s and the early ‘90s, it would be incomplete if missing any of the following: National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), and Groundhog Day (1993).
And what unifies all seven of those hilarious classics, aside from their comedic brilliance? The legendary comedy mind of Harold Ramis. A juggler of the writer, director, actor titles, he played a major part in every single one of those movies. Because of that, Ramis has long been a big influence on today’s funny movie masters, like Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen. You could view Ramis’ role in Knocked Up as Rogen’s character’s father as a metaphorical wink-wink from Apatow and company. Ramis birthed their style of comedy.
Which is why this afternoon’s sad news about the 69-year-old Ramis’ passing feels like such a heavy blow. Long suffering from auto-immune inflammatory vasculitis, a disease that causes swelling in one’s blood vessels, Ramis succumbed to the affliction, leaving behind a legacy that’s inestimable.
One fears, though, that Ramis’ illustrious career might not be fully understood by the casual movie/TV watcher. To some, he’ll forever be the brainy Egon Spengler, the smartest Ghostbuster of them all, but the Chicago native was more prolific behind the camera than in front of it. Here, Complex looks back at the man’s incredibly influential and revered résumé to point out a few of his greatest but lesser-discussed achievements.
He was one of the main writers/performers for the seminal National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Before Saturday Night Live, there was The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a weekly program handled by the National Lampoon magazine’s writing staff. In 1973 and 1974, the National Lampoon team, headed by John Belushi, recruited a slew of young, hungry comedy writers to perform their sketches, including Harold Ramis. Before then, Ramis was penning jokes for Playboy after collecting checks working as a newspaper writer and, get this, an orderly in a mental institution (seriously). During his time with the radio show, Ramis worked alongside fellow up-and-comers like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, all of whom, of course, later starred on Saturday Night Live once The National Lampoon Radio Hour closed down.
He was a member of Second City Television, Canada’s brilliant answer to Saturday Night Live.
Two years after his time with The National Lampoon Radio Hour ended, Ramis turned his attention up north to Toronto to join Second City Television, Canada’s unofficial version of America’s SNL. Ramis spent three years with SCTV, writing skits that starred his colleagues, and future comedy legends, Rick Moranis, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Short.
He co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).
During his SCTV days, Ramis reunited with the National Lampoon crew to co-author the first film ever produced by the magazine’s staff. Doug Kenney, the mag’s first editor-in-chief, had been working on the Animal House script with another Lampoon writer, Chris Miller; to gain an extra insider, former frat guy’s perspective, they joined up with Ramis, who, in addition to his own Lampoon experience and sensibilities, was a member of Zeta Beta Tau at Washington University in St. Louis. Together, the threesome worked through a number of early drafts, including one called Laser Orgy Girls, centered around a Charles Manson-like figure.
He’s the guy to thank for those John Belushi/“College” posters you had in your dorm room.
Once Ramis, Kenney, and Miller settled on what would become Animal House, the co-writers knew they wanted National Lampoon Radio Hour veteran John Belushi, who was by then a Saturday Night Live standout, to headline the film. From there, Ramis took over, creating the now-iconic character of Bluto specifically for Belushi, whom Ramis had first befriended in Ramis’ home Chicago through the improv troupe The Second City.
He helped turn Bill Murray into a leading man.
Ramis and Murray became good friends during their days working together on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Thus, when it came time to produce Meatballs, a raunchy summer camp comedy co-written by Ramis, it made perfect sense that it’d be Murray’s first time headlining a feature film. The performance is, of course, all Murray’s, but the jokes and the film’s irreverent tone are owed in large part to Ramis. Also a beneficiary of Meatballs: director Ivan Reitman, a producer on National Lampoon’s Animal House and the guy who’d later direct Ramis and Murray in both Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II.
He provided the voice for pothead alien Zeke in the 1981 cult classic animated movie Heavy Metal.
Reitman also produced Heavy Metal, the infamous, hard-R-rated animated anthology with its flags firmly planted in sci-fi and dark, twisted fantasy. The film’s screenplay was written by Ramis’ Meatballs co-writers Dan Goldberg and Len Blum. With those personal connections to the production, it makes perfect sense that Ramis provided his vocals for the character of “Zeke,” a green, fun-loving spaceship operator best known for delivering the wonderful line, “If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to drive when I’m stoned.”
He co-wrote “Weatherman,” the song heard in Groundhog Day, which Ramis also directed and co-wrote.
If you’re a good writer, you can write anything. Since Ramis was a truly great writer, momentarily shifting his pen game over to music was logical when it came time to make Groundhog Day. Near the film’s beginning, you’ll hear the peppy rock tune “Weatherman,” performed by the O.G. blues musician/singer Delbert McClinton. Well, it was written by both McClinton and Ramis, because, really, what couldn’t the latter write well?
He co-wrote the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School.
Harold Ramis’ close ties to Rodney Dangerfield date back to 1980, when Ramis co-wrote Caddyshack, the film in which Dangerfield would successfully transition into Hollywood and become a legitimate star. Their like-minded comedy styles gelled together once again in Back to School, one of Dangerfield’s biggest box office hits as a movie actor, earning over $90 million in theaters.
He directed and co-wrote the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedies Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002).
Harold Ramis’ legacy as a director will, no doubt, forever be most signified by classic films like Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog Day. But he also directed a bunch of winning comedies that he isn't as recognized for. There’s the underrated Michael Keaton flick Multiplicity (1996), but even better is Analyze This, for which he got Robert De Niro to hilariously send-up his on-screen gangster image. Bobby D’s performance as mobster Paul Vitti was the reason why Meet the Parents director Jay Roach met with the acting legend to possibly play that movie’s no-bullshit father figure Jack Byrnes.
He directed four episodes of NBC’s The Office.
Unlike most directors in Hollywood, Ramis didn’t dabble much in the small-screen world, except for the four episodes of The Office he shot for NBC: “A Benihana Christmas” (season 3, episode 10), “Safety Training” (season 3, episode 20), “Beach Games” (season 3, episode 22), and “The Delivery: Part 1” (season 6, episode 17).