Every time a happy-hour table starts zipping off lines from Caddyshack or Animal House, whenever a new generation of smartalecks discovers Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, they have Harold Ramis to thank.
Mr. Ramis, who had a hand in writing, directing and acting in some of the most influential movies in the comedy canon — and who was lucky enough to work with some seriously funny friends — died in his native Chicago on Monday from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease involving swelling of the blood vessels. He was 69.
For a lot of people born in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the films on Mr. Ramis' resume, which include Meatballs and National Lampoon's Vacation, are ingrained in our pop-cultural DNA. That may sound like heavy sentiment for motion pictures that involve John Belushi impersonating a zit or Chevy Chase tying Aunt Edna to the top of the Family Truckster, but hey, they defined us nonetheless.
Among those influenced by Mr. Ramis is comedy maven Judd Apatow, who honored his hero by casting him as Seth Rogen's dad in 2007's Knocked Up. "When I was 15, I interviewed Harold for my high school radio station, and he was the person that I wanted to be when I was growing up," Apatow told the Chicago Tribune. "His work is the reason why so many of us got into comedy."
Perhaps best identified as Bill Murray's bespectacled buddy Russell "Willing to learn" Ziskey in Stripes and Dr. Egon "I collect spores, molds and fungus" Spengler in the Ghostbusters franchise, Mr. Ramis blended brainy and silly, the geek with a sly grin and big hair. He was always ready to tweak authority, be it the U.S. Army, a snooty country club or the uptight jerks in Omega Theta Pi.
It was a profitable blend of humor Mr. Ramis first developed as a joke writer for Playboy magazine and then as a player in Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, a hall-of-fame factory that has also produced, to name just a few bold-faced luminaries, Belushi, Murray, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Ghostbusters co-star and writing partner Dan Aykroyd.
"Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my brilliant, gifted, funny friend, co-writer/performer and teacher Harold Ramis," Aykroyd said in a statement. "May he now get the answers he was always seeking."
After scoring writing credits on Animal House, Meatballs and SCTV (aka Canada's televised answer to Saturday Night Live), Ramis made his directorial debut with 1980's Caddyshack, displaying a gift not just for pacing but also giving brilliant comedic actors (Murray, Chase, Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield) the freedom to improvise. He'd team with the mercurial Murray on six movies, including 1993's Groundhog Day ("Don't drive angry!"), which in 2006 was added to the U.S. National Film Registry as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" work of cinema.
For all his sidekick work, though, Mr. Ramis learned early that he was destined to leave 'em laughing more behind the lens. "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 told the Chicago Tribune. "When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh . . . I thought: 'I'm never going to be this big.' "
Such is the depth of Mr. Ramis' legacy that some of his second-tier flicks will no doubt get lost in the hosannas. But in the next few weeks, do yourself a favor and make time for Dangerfield's Back to School (he wrote the screenplay), Billy Crystal-Robert De Niro mob farce Analyze This (he directed and co-wrote) and the loopy Michael Keaton mania of Multiplicity (he directed).
Mr. Ramis, who had been battling health problems since 2010, at one point having to relearn how to walk, is survived by his wife, Erica Mann Ramis, three children and two grandchildren.
Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report. Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.