Harold Ramis died Monday at the age of 69, and I have to admit I am a bit surprised by the volume and intensity of grief about his death.
It isn’t that Ramis doesn’t deserve such an outpouring. I just had no idea so many people held such strong feelings for a man who rarely demanded the spotlight.
Retrospectives, elegies and quotes from his movies have virtually taken over social media. President Barack Obama even paid tribute to Ramis, a fellow Chicagoan, by deftly quoting a line from “Caddyshack,” which Ramis wrote and directed.
The mere fact that I was asked to write this column is a testament to the breadth and depth of affection people have for Ramis. It’s the first time in my nearly eight years writing for The Times an editor has asked for an article about a movie star’s passing.
But then, Ramis wasn’t a movie star, not really. Despite writing, directing and acting in dozens of movies, many of which have become staples of American pop culture, Ramis always seemed like one of us. Whoever you consider “us” to be.
Ramis was a consummate everyman and infinitely humble, on and off screen. Even now, if we could ask him what he thought about the reaction to his death, Ramis would undoubtedly shrug and offer some self-deprecating, nasally quip.
But Ramis’ contribution to American comedy is undeniable. He wrote “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Meatballs,” and “Back to School.” He directed “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” He wrote and directed “Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Analyze This.” He wrote and co-starred in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”
As a writer, director and actor, Ramis proved it’s possible to be witty without being arrogant. That comedy can be accessible and meaningful. That some rebels wear pocket protectors rather than biker jackets.
With characters such as Ziskey in “Stripes” and Egon from “Ghostbusters,” Ramis introduced a new kind of outsider to American movie culture. He wasn’t an outsider among average Americans, only among the characters that dominated Hollywood movies.
Ramis was never the coolest person according to the usual standards. But he wielded his dry wit, wry smirk and sly confidence like a verbal samurai. Without seeming to try, he transcended his supporting roles and made indelible impressions on us, while still making everyone around him better.
Ramis’ career waned over the past decade, but he gave one last memorable supporting performance in “Knocked Up,” playing a father who loves his son but has no clue how to advise him. Ramis’ scenes in that film capture something essential for men in Generation X, many of whom grew up with absent or laissez-faire fathers.
As the straight man, Ramis rarely got the last word, except when he wrote the script, of course. So perhaps the best way to honor him is to give him the last word.
The following is an excerpt from an interview Ramis did with Movie City News, in which he was asked to give advice to aspiring filmmakers. His answer reveals a bit of the personal philosophy that produced Ramis’ many quotable lines and goes way beyond career advice.
These aren’t just words to work by, they are words to live by. The world is richer because Ramis did just that.
“You have to live your life with a certain blind confidence that if it’s your destiny to succeed at these things, it will happen. If you just continue to follow a straight path, you know, to do your work as conscientiously and creatively as you can and to just stay open to all opportunity and experience. ... If you concentrate on making other people look good, then we all have the potential to look good.
“I’ve always found that my career happened as a result of a tremendous synergy of all the talented people I’ve worked with, all helping each other, all connecting and reconnecting in different combinations. So ... identify talented people around you, and then instead of going into competition with them or trying to wipe them out, make alliances, make creative friendships that allow you and your friends to grow together.”
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.