The World According
To Harold Ramis
The Late Comic Director, Writer And Actor May Have Been The Personification Of Droll, But He Was Undoubtedly Talented And Oh, So Witty
Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 22, 2016 — Film fans were all a bit stunned and numb when the news broke that Harold Ramis had died Feb. 24, 2014 at his Chicago home at the age of 69. His untimely death came after complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis.
As teenagers in the ‘70s, Ramis’ three-year stint on SCTV, (1976-79) the Second City syndicated television show was hilarity personified. Ramis had us in stiches with his character of “tetched” train switchman “Muley,” a paranoiac who hosted a lunchtime TV show for kids and who continually admonished them against the insidious evils of Bolshevism, coincidentally not too long before the Berlin Wall toppled for real and not just in a goofy sketch.
While he was appearing in SCTV, Ramis was also working on the screenplay for his first film hit, Animal House, released in 1978. Just after Ramis’ mega-hit Caddyshack, (1980), which he co-wrote and directed and prior to his co-starring turn with Bill Murray in Stripes (1981), we paid our first of two visits with Ramis, who was officed in NBC’s “beautiful downtown Burbank” studios where he was working on a TV special with his Caddyshack star Rodney Dangerfield.
We found Ramis sitting on a couch with a handgun resting on the table next to him, his unkempt hair radiating out in all directions and marked by a mile-wide skunk streak that Susan Sontag would’ve envied. “Hey, it’s a sick society,” he exclaimed as matter-of-factly as your trusted accountant telling you how much your yearly tax rebate will be. Ramis then nonchalantly picked up the snubnosed .38 and leveled it at us. We soon discovered in addition to scaring the sh-t out of interviewers, it also served as a cigarette lighter.
From that auspicious beginning the interview tobogganed even further downhill when we (to regain face from diving under the coffee table after the gun incident) insisted that Ramis say something into our tape recorder in his Muley character – aptly named for Ramis’ bleating vocal delivery that sounded like a cross between a mule braying or an infant mewling for its mother’s tit. “No, no,” Ramis demurred. “Joe Flaherty (one of SCTV’s ensemble) is the only guy that can get me to do that.” So, an opportunity for recording a classic telephone salutation was lost forever. (“Leave your message at the beep, unless you’re a Bolshevik.”)
“I’ve always found that pleasure and the way I feel about myself has nothing to do with my relative level of success,” he said. “I was happy in college and that wasn’t that great. And life today isn’t that great. But college wasn’t so bad and neither is life today. You get famous only for your parents. I just try to do good work for myself.”
Growing up on Chicago’s North Shore, Ramis attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he said he lived an “Animal House kind of existence.” He returned to Chicago after college, still not certain how and where to funnel his creative ambitions. As a freelance writer for the “Arts & Leisure Magazine” of the Chicago Daily News, Ramis traveled to Los Angeles for the first time on press junkets.
“I didn’t want to go to New York, Los Angeles and struggle,” he said. “Chicago was the place I knew best and I just wanted to do as much as I could there. I only relocated to Los Angeles when I had work waiting for me.”
While his writing career was taking off Ramis began exploring his “inner ham” by attending a series of improvisational workshops at Chicago’s famed Second City.
“When I wasn’t offered a spot on the national touring company, I took my pieces and went over to Playboy where I became joke editor – a horrible job,” he said. “Soon they made me an associate editor.”
After first being rejected, Ramis was finally offered a part in the Second City Touring Company. His co-players, who were soon to become his close friends and work colleagues, included Joe Flaherty, Brian and Bill Murray and John Belushi. Ramis was doing eight shows a week at night while still working 40 hours a week at Playboy.
When Belushi left for New York to set up the National Lampoon Radio Hour, he brought all of the Second City players with him, including a young comedienne named Gilda Radner. Soon everyone was cast in what was to become a television staple, Saturday Night Live. Everyone, that is, except Ramis who went to Los Angeles to work on a PBS project.
“The fact that they got jobs on network television didn’t bother me too much,” he said. “I liked what I was doing in L.A. I was then asked to do a film treatment for the National Lampoon.”
While his writing and directing career was taking off, Ramis also took supporting roles in Stripes and Ghostbusters. He typically played the nerdy second banana to many of his former Second City buddies.
“Most performers that I work around are real strong and aggressive,” he said. “If you’re improvising with people like Belushi or Murray you’d better have strong material or you’ll never get noticed.”
Almost 15 years had passed between our first encounter with Ramis and when we caught up him again in 1995, he was helming “Multiplicity” which starred Michael Keaton. A few pounds heavier, a few years older and unquestionably more celebrated, Ramis retained that same demeanor like he had just flatlined on an operating table.
It was noon at the Sony Studios (formerly the MGM lot) in Culver City, Calif., and the cast and crew of Multiplicity was breaking for lunch. As we step into his trailer, for a fleeting instant, it’s hard for us to believe that the man who was responsible for making college toga parties the range in the late 1970s was now 50. Other than a few telltale gray streaks in his bushy mane, and a slightly protruding “spare tire” around the waist, Ramis hadn’t changed much. In fact, between bites of a vegetarian pizza, Ramis admits that the few extra stones may be the single factor that keeps him positioned behind the camera.
“I love acting,” he said. “But I haven’t liked the way I’ve looked in the last three movies I appeared in – Groundhog Day, Airheads and Love Affair, Warren Beatty’s movie. I just looked too big. If I lose weight I’ll probably look for acting work again. I just don’t want to end up like Orson Welles.”
Recalling his first big screen hit Animal House in 1978, “The film cost $2.7 million to make and was shot in 37 days,” he recalled. “Isn’t it a shame that the average movie costs more than $30 million to make. By the same token, I’m part of the inflation because we have good agents. I received $10,000 for ‘Animal House,’ but with points (a percentage of the film’s gross), it paid off.
“What’s gratifying to me is to meet people who claim that they watch either Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters or Animal House every week,” he said. “There are people who say they watch one of these films whenever they’re depressed.”
Despite the pressures of directing films with budgets exceeding $40 million, Ramis does not crack the whip or take a Draconian approach to moviemaking.
“I’m not automaniacal,” he said. “I’m an easy-going guy. I can handle a lot of things. I have three kids. I try not to get real obsessive about work. What’s the point? It’s important and when there’s work to be done I try to sit down and do it. But otherwise I play Scrabble on the computer and wait for the actors to get ready.”
That easygoing, rooted approach to life and moviemaking is what eventually led Ramis to chuck the Hollywood rat race and move back to Chicago’s North Shore where, in his last years, he continued to write, direct and occasionally star in movies. The 2009 box office dud, Year One, starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, was the last film Ramis wrote and directed.
As interview number two came to a close, Ramis pondered his film batting average (more hits than misses). “It’s an instinctive process,” he said. “I usually start with what I consider a good idea, not whether it’s funny or not. Is it broad enough to appeal to a lot of people? Is it true? Is it a world I want to portray. Is it something I want my kids to see? There are a lot of big questions that go into my decisionmaking. I keep looking for things that I haven’t seen.”
And whether movie audiences queue up to see the finished product or not, Ramis seemed lackadaisical.
“Can’t control that,” he said, “there’s no accounting for taste.”
After all, as Ramis had told us years before, it’s a sick society.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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