The 7 Biggest Films of Harold Ramis’s Career
The entertainment world saw one of its most beloved and prolific comedy figures pass away on Monday. Harold Ramis, the actor, writer, and director of films including Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and Stripes, died from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis after battling the condition for four years, Ramis’ representation United Talent Agency said. Ramis was 69 years old.
In a career dating back nearly forty years, Ramis has left behind a startlingly consistent resume of work that continues to stay funny, as the New Yorker explains in an article dating back to 2004. The work of Ramis has also been cited by filmmakers and comedians like Jay Roach, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and Adam Sandler as a huge influence, laying the ground work for Ramis’ body of work to, in turn, influence generations to come.
Since Ramis wore many hats in the film industry, having had prominent roles as writer, director, producer, and actor through the years, it’s sometimes difficult to remember just how many of the classic comedies he has had significant roles in. Here are seven of the biggest films in Ramis’ career and what his roles were in them.
Groundhog Day (1993) – Co-writer, Director, Producer, Actor
While there’s no shortage of films Ramis is sure to be remembered for, there’ no doubt that 1993′s Groundhog Day will be the film seen as the comedy genius’ towering achievement. Serving as both director and co-writer, Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as an arrogant and egotistical Pittsburgh television weatherman named Phil Connors who inadvertently finds himself in a time loop after covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney.
Besides including one of the best performances of Murray’s career, Groundhog Day is also a strangely complicated for a film with a simple premise. After using the time loop to initially indulge in acts of hedonism, the situation then gives way to the reality of what someone would actually experience if he or she was forced to relive the same day forever, with no expectations that it would ever stop. When hedonism gives way to depression and suicide attempts, Connors finally starts to shift his priorities leading to a wholesale change in his character.
There’s also the interesting topic of exactly how long Connors has been stuck in the time loop within the movie. The timeline has been estimated at anywhere from eight years to forty years — a timeline that starts to put the events of the film in a much darker, more interesting perspective. In fact, early drafts of the film supposedly suggested that Connors had been stuck in the time loop for a whopping 1,000 years. For a film that’s most often remembered as a simple broad comedy, that’s some pretty fascinating subtext lingering beneath the surface.
Ghostbusters (1984) — Co-writer, Actor
There’s definitely something to be said about the fact that thirty years later, Ghostbusters feels as fresh as it did when it was first released in 1984 (except maybe the ’80s pop.) Co-written by Ramis along with Dan Aykroyd and starring both along with Murray, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis, Ghostbusters tells the story of three parapsychologists in New York City who found a ghost catching business as spirit activity rises uncontrollably. Similar to Groundhog Day, it is a film that makes no excuses for its silly premise and as a result, the film is brilliantly grounded.
Originally meant to be a starring vehicle for Aykroyd and John Belushi (in a draft entitled “Ghostmashers,” which director Ivan Reitman believed was too financially impracticable), Aykroyd and Ramis finished a new script in June 1982. However, Belushi’s death and lack of commitment from actors John Candy and Eddie Murphy forced them to rewrite once again, transforming the film into into its final iteration. Reitman would later explain that the film benefitted from the combination of Aykroyd’s high concept premise, Ramis’ ability to ground the concept in reality, and Murray’s knack for improvisation on set.
Both a critical and financial success, Ghostbusters earned $291 million on a budget of $30 million and was the number one film at the box office for five consecutive weeks. The film would lead to a sequel in 1989, Ghostbusters II, and there have been discussions and rumors of a Ghostbusters III for several years now, although Ramis’ passing might make the already difficult development stage even more so.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) — Director, Uncredited Co-writer
Now that National Lampoon is synonymous with low-brow, straight-to-DVD comedy, it’s easy to forget how ground-breaking the American humor magazine once was (although it should be noted that the moniker of “National Lampoon” is now owned by a production company with no roots to the magazine which began in 1970.) Released in 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation stars Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid, and Dana Barron in a story about a disastrous cross-country trip to the Los Angeles amusement park “Walley World.”
Directed by Ramis from a screenplay by John Hughes, Vacation is based on Hughes’ short story “Vacation ’58″ which had appeared in National Lampoon and describes a fictionalized account of a trip to Disneyland with his family when he was a child. For Hughes, the success of the film would lead him to write and direct some of the biggest classics of the late 1980s, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. For Ramis, who is sometimes listed as an uncredited writer for the film, Vacation would further cement his status as a comedy mainstay.
Caddyshack (1980) — Co-writer, Director
Released in 1980, Caddyshack marked the feature film directing debut for Ramis who also co-wrote the film with Brian Doyle-Murray and Douglas Kenney. The film stars Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray in a comedy about a country club for WASPish snobs and an ambitious young caddy who must navigate all of the crazy individuals in order to receive a caddy scholarship. But really, the story mostly serves to bring the viewer from one ridiculous situation to the next with standout characters such as Murray’s gopher-obsessed groundskeeper and other scenes that mostly stand on their own.
Critical reception to Caddyshack has been mixed over the years with Roger Ebert writing in 2004, “Caddyshack never finds a consistent comic note of its own, but it plays host to all sorts of approaches from its stars, who sometimes hardly seem to be occupying the same movie.” However, the film’s cult following has continued to grow through the years and it has been especially popular among sports fans with both ESPN and Golf Channel naming the film among the great sports films of all time.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) — Co-writer
The longstanding king of frat comedy, National Lampoon’s Animal House was released in 1978 and is still considered the seminal comedic take on Greek university culture. Ramis’ first feature writing credit, Animal House stars a young Belushi as a member of a misfit group of fraternity members who take cause mayhem on the campus of Faber College while challenging its dean. Directed by John Landis, Animal House was also co-wrote by Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller based on Miller’s experiences at Dartmouth College.
One of the most profitable films of all time, Animal House has earned more than $141 million through the years on a budget of only $2.8 million. However, critical reception was notably mixed upon a release with none other than Ebert coming to the film’s rescue, calling it one of the best films of the year. “The movie is vulgar, raunchy, ribald, and occasionally scatological. It is also the funniest comedy since Mel Brooks made The Producers.” With the film still earning midnight screenings across the country with big turnouts, there’s no doubt the film’s creators were on to something.
Stripes (1981) — Co-writer, Actor
The 1981 military comedy Stripes came right off the heels of Ramis’ first directing gig, Caddyshack. Stripes tells the story John Winger (Murray), a loser who decides to join the army with his friend Russell Ziskey (Ramis) on a lark when his day goes from bad to worse after losing his job. The film also stars the late John Candy in a performance what would ultimately lead to his screen breakthrough.
As a co-writer for the film, director Reitman lobbied for Ramis to take a lead role in the film despite being relatively unknown as a screen actor. Reitman’s stance is said to have lead to heated discussions with the studio, who disliked Ramis’ screentest and at one point had Dennis Quaid reading lines. Reitman’s faith in Ramis would ultimately be proven correct as the film went on to gross $80 million on a $10 million budget while receiving strong marks from critics. Additionally, Ramis’ acting career would go on to be just as impressive as his resume behind the camera.
Analyze This (1999) — Co-writer, Director
The 1999 mob-comedy film Analyze This stars Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal as a mafioso and his psychiatrist, respectively, whose lives are thrown together with expectedly disastrous results. The film would lead to a less successful sequel in 2002 entitled Analyze That, which Ramis also co-wrote and directed.
With Ramis taking the directing reigns and co-writing the screenplay with playwright Kenneth Lonergan and Peter Tolan, Analyze This would prove to be the most successful film in his directing resume, scoring almost $177 million on a budget of $80 million — strong numbers for any comedy. While reviews were somewhat lukewarm — Rotten Tomatoes shows the film at 69 percent — many wrote glowingly about the script and the relationship between De Niro and Crystal in the film. Despite middling reviews from critics, audiences were definitely onboard making the film’s rather large $80 million budget look like a bargain.