Harold Ramis, film actor, director and writer, dies at 69

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Judd Apatow directed “Superbad.” He produced the 2007 film, which was directed by Greg Mottola.


Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd (center) and Harold Ramis (right) in a scene from the 1984 movie "Ghostbusters." (AP)
February 24

Harold Ramis, an actor, writer and director credited for directing popular movie comedies such as “Groundhog Day” and “Caddyshack” and for co-writing or acting in many other films, including “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes,” died Feb. 24 at his home in Chicago. He was 69.

He had complications from vasculitis, a rare inflammatory disease that damages blood vessels, Chris Day, a spokesman at United Talent Agency, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Ramis, a veteran of Chicago’s celebrated Second City comedy troupe, was a major contributor to a series of madcap blockbuster comedies of the 1970s and 1980s and influenced a later generation of filmmakers, including Judd Apatow and Peter Farrelly.

In 1978, Mr. Ramis co-wrote “Animal House,” a college farce starring his fellow Second City alumnus John Belushi. The film ushered in a new style of broad comedy and has become recognized as a modern classic.

Mr. Ramis later teamed with another Second City friend, Dan Aykroyd, to write “Ghostbusters” (1984), in which the two co-starred with Bill Murray as zany parapsychologists who seek to save the world, or at least New York City, from the scourge of ghosts. He played Dr. Egon Spengler.

“Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light,” he says to Murray’s character, Dr. Peter Venkman, in the film.

“That’s bad,” Murray responds. “Okay, all right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.”

Other films written in part by Mr. Ramis included “Meatballs” (1979), about a dysfunctional summer camp; “Stripes” (1981), about misfits who enlist in the Army; and “Caddyshack” (1980), about the antics of young caddies and older golfers at a suburban course infested by gophers.

“Caddyshack,” which included Murray, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield in the cast, was the first film that Mr. Ramis directed. The initial reviews were lukewarm.

“ ‘Caddyshack’ feels more like a movie that was written rather loosely,” Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote, “so that when shooting began there was freedom — too much freedom — for it to wander off in all directions in search of comic inspiration.”

Since then, “Caddyshack” has become a cult classic, and fans have memorized its absurdist comic lines.

“My foe, my enemy, is an animal,” Murray’s character says, describing a particularly pesky gopher. “And in order to conquer an animal, I have to think like an animal, and—whenever possible — to look like one.”

In 1993, Mr. Ramis directed and co-wrote the screenplay of “Groundhog Day,” a comedy starring Murray as a smug TV weather forecaster reporting on Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that weighs in Feb. 2 on spring’s arrival in Punxsutawney, Pa. (Murray’s character is also named Phil.)

When a snowstorm prevents Murray from leaving town, he stays overnight, only to wake up and relive the same day. The movie replays different variations of the same day — each time in a more abandoned and self-destructive way — before Murray’s character develops a greater understanding of himself and the people around him.

Washington Post critic Hal Hinson called “Groundhog Day” “the best American comedy since ‘Tootsie’,” but other reviews were more muted. Like many of Mr. Ramis’s films, it acquired an almost subversive, underground cachet before becoming recognized as a classic that occupies a genre of its own.

Harold Allen Ramis was born Nov. 21, 1944, in Chicago. His parents ran a grocery and liquor store.

He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, then returned to Chicago as a freelance journalist. He occasionally contributed jokes to Playboy magazine and began performing at Second City.

During his second stint with the troupe that has fostered generations of comedy talent, he realized comedy performance was not his greatest strength.

“The moment I knew I wouldn’t be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time,” he said in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I thought: I’m never going to be this big. How could I ever get enough attention on a stage with guys like this? I stopped being the zany. I let John be the zany.”

In the late 1970s, Mr. Ramis was the head writer and a performer on “Second City Television (SCTV),” a groundbreaking comedy sketch series that helped launch the careers of John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy.

Mr. Ramis later co-wrote and directed “Analyze This” (1999) and “Analyze That” (2002), starring Robert De Niro as a mob boss in counseling with a psychiatrist played by Billy Crystal. Other directing credits included “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) with Chevy Chase; “The Ice Harvest” (2005), a dark comedy starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton; and several episodes of the NBC comedy series “The Office.”

Mr. Ramis’s wacky, anarchic style of ensemble comedy inspired a younger generation of filmmakers, including Farrelly (”There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber”), Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents”) and Apatow, who directed “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and produced “Superbad,” “Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story” and other films. A 15-year-old Apatow once interviewed Mr. Ramis for a high school radio show.

Mr. Ramis returned to live in Chicago in 1996. He had struggled with vasculitis since 2010 but said little about his condition.

His first marriage, to Anne Plotkin, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 24 years, Erica Mann; a daughter from his first marriage; two sons from his second marriage; and two grandchildren.

“The best comedy touches something that’s timeless and universal in people,” Mr. Ramis told the AP in 2009. “When you hit it right, those things last.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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