The beloved actor, writer, and director of many great comedies died today at age 69.
According to Ramis’ attorney, Fred Toczek, Ramis passed away in his Chicago home Monday morning due to complications with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a disease that he had battled for the past four years. The illness took away his ability to walk, though through physical therapy, he relearned the process.
Ramis is beloved by fans of comedy the world over for a lifetime of achievement both in front of the camera and behind of it. Besides starring in Stripes and the Ghostbusters films, which he’s also credited with co-writing, he also co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack, the latter of which he directed. Other beloved credits include directing Groundhog Day and Bedazzled.
Born on November 21, 1944, Ramis was a native Chicagoan who would eventually graduate into the city’s hallowed sketch comedy and improv troupe, The Second City. Having developed a reputation as a writer by freelancing for The Chicago Daily News after graduation from the University of Missouri, Ramis had worked his way up to be the joke editor at Playboy, making a name for himself as a comedy writer. As a writer at Second City, Ramis also became a reliable sketch actor where he worked with the likes of John Belushi and other comedy greats in the early 1970s. This connection allowed Ramis to eventually star in The National Lampoon Show revue, as well as become the head writer and a comedy performer in the Canadian-based comedy television series, SCTV (Second City TV) from 1976 to 1977. Like its chief competitor, Saturday Night Live, it was littered with Second City talent including Rick Moranis, John Candy, and Eugene Levy, all of whom would appear in Ramis’ later films.
Ramis left SCTV to write a screenplay with National Lampoon Magazine’s Douglas Kenney and, eventually, Chris Miller, for the film that would become National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). Ramis himself was a member of the Alpha Xi chapter of Zeta Beta Tau during his college days, and much like how his short stint as a substitute teacher in Chicago played a role in his script for Stripes, there are likely some personal touches in this backwards-looking ‘60s set nostalgia piece.
While John Landis directed Animal House, Ramis soon graduated to that seat after the raunchy fraternity laugher proved to pave the way for edgier comedic fare in Hollywood with its $141 million box office gross. Ramis followed up Animal House by being one of the four credited writers on Meatballs, where he cemented what would be a long, tumultuous friendship with star Bill Murray. Murray starred in Ramis’ directorial debut, Caddyshack (1980), which did for country clubs what Animal House did for fraternity prestige. A comedy that quickly ditched the titular caddies in favor of the star wattage coming from Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray as the demented gopher-hunting greenskeeper, the film was a big hit for the collaborators who would later star together in the Ramis-scripted and Ivan Reitman-directed military spoof, Stripes (1981).
The two highlights of Ramis’ acting career, Pvt. Russell Zisky in Stripes and Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters (1984), were both created in part by Ramis on the page. On a personal note, this writer grew up his entire childhood watching both movies as terrific products of sarcasm and irony (before I knew what those words meant) that featured Ramis feeding both his slacker comedy impulses in a lark at the U.S. military’s expense, as well as his more subversive witticisms through the most deadly dry deadpan on a screen that also featured a giant marshmallow god. Ramis and Aykroyd’s exceedingly smart script on Ghostbusters, allowing Murray to be at his most sardonic, paved the way for the less admired, child-friendly Ghostbusters II (1989). Yet, even that film should hold a special place in the heart of anyone who has ever visited New York: Manhattan-ites need to start being nice to each other to save the world? Might as well start paying homage to Lord Vigo the Carpathian right now!
The final film of the Ramis and Murray partnership was the fantastic Murray vehicle that Ramis co-wrote and directed, Groundhog Day(1993). In the picture, Murray plays a narcissistic schmuck who through some case of cosmic punishment must be forced to relive the same day over and over again in a sickeningly sweet small town during the coldest day of February. For at least 40 years. The picture was hailed as Ramis’ masterpiece by The New Yorker, but marked the end of the famed collaboration when Ramis and Murray had a professional and personal falling out that never was fully resolved. It was not until for over a decade that they attempted to bridge the gap, but they never worked together on a set again.
Ramis would go on to direct several more well-received comedies, including the Michael Keaton cloning laugher Multiplicity, the mobster ‘n shrinks Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy duo Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002), as well as the red hot temptress she-devil comedy remake, Bedazzled (2000), starring Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser. Ramis also would appear in small acting roles, such as in As Good As It Gets (1997) and Knocked Up (2007). However, he never quite achieved the level of success that he did with his Murray collaborations in the 1980s and 1990s. Ramis’ final directorial effort was the slight Year One (2009), where he featured in a cameo appearance, and his final performance was, somewhat fittingly, in the vocal reprisal of Egon Spengler for Ghostbusters: The Video Game (2009). It was the closest we will ever likely come to the always-forthcoming “Ghostbusters 3.”
Ramis won the BAFTA for his Groundhog Day screenplay in 1994, as well as was nominated for the same text and Best Director at the Saturn Awards that year. Ramis was also inducted into the St. Louis Hall of Fame, where he attended university, in 2004.
Ramis is survived by his second wife Erica Mann Ramis, their two sons Julian Arthur Ramis and Daniel Hayes Ramis, and by daughter Violet Stiel from his first marriage.
Ramis will be missed by Delta Tau Chi pledges and Gozer enthusiasts the world over.