“Well, for me, it’s the relationship between comedy and life – that’s the edge I live on, and maybe it’s my protection against looking at the tragedy of it all. It’s seeing life in balance. Comedy and tragedy co-exist. You can’t have one without the other. I’m of the school that anything can be funny, if seen from a comedic point of view.” – Harold Ramis on his life in films
I’ve heard it been said that eulogies are often times more about the person who give them than they ever are about the person who died.
To some extent, I think that’s probably true. I can remember kinda/sorta making that same point back in my college days. I penned a paper on the classic Citizen Kane. My thesis was that, after watching the film, I knew far more about what made the people who knew Charles Foster Kane tick, much more than I ever truly knew about the main character himself. For those of you who haven’t seen the film – spoiler alert! (and shame on you, by the way!) – Kane dies at the beginning, whispering the mysterious word “Rosebud” on his deathbed, and then some upstart reporter spends the next two-hours-plus trying to piece together what he meant. How? By interviewing those who knew him best. Their memories are tinted with their respective feelings, and what they recall demonstrates how they felt toward or about him. Disappointment. Anger. Frustration. Reverence.
Like the reporter said in the conclusion – I’m paraphrasing here – “Can any one person ever really know a man?”
This brings me to the death earlier this week of Harold Ramis.
No, I didn’t know the man. Never met him. I knew the ‘talent,’ though. I knew the ‘actor.’ I knew the ‘writer.’ I knew the ‘director.’ But I never knew the man.
In my younger days, I remember Ramis turning up occasionally on the program that came on after Saturday Night Live – a little something called SCTV. (I’m still gobsmacked when I find people who’ve never heard of it.) To me, SCTV was much funnier and had a vastly more talented group of yucksters than SNL. Eugene Levy. John Candy. Andrea Martin. Dave Thomas. Joe Flaherty. Rick Moranis. What a talented group they were.
While it wasn’t technically Ramis’s first gig, most fans point back to show as where he truly got his start in the business. He served as head writer, and one cruel fate that often befalls writers on sketch comedy is that they end up playing bit parts because the big names can’t do everything. Ramis was there – in the background, taking up space, occasionally even gawking at what took place around him – and he had one of those expressions that always made me just laugh.
That wonderful mug of his finally found mainstream appeal when he paired it side-by-side with Bill Murray in the immortal classic, Stripes. (That’s the fact, Jack.) Ramis knew a good thing when he saw it – he’s already written Animal House, and his scripts for Meatballs and Caddyshack practically made Murray’s early career possible; so he possibly saw himself as the logical straight man to Murray’s loon. As Russell Ziskey, Ramis was the voice of reason, telling Murray “you gotta take care of yourself, John,” and “you ought not be caught doing that, John,” and eventually, “OK, I’ll drive, John.”
Plus, he got the crazy chick in the picture.
He bagged Sean Young. Cra-cra Sean Young. (Google it, kids. I’ll wait.)
Trust me: crazy chicks dig straight men. Just ask my wife.
Of course, everyone mostly remembers Ramis for his turn as the suitably nerdy Dr. Egon Spengler in 1984’s legendary Ghostbusters. Ramis co-wrote the script as well as directed it. I recall him distinctly telling a story in an interview years later that he originally had intended for the late John Belushi to star in Murray’s role. Belushi passed away, and the natural second choice was only Murray. For my tastes, his Egon was always a bit too close to Dan Aykroyd’s Dr. Raymond Stantz … only with better hair. But he handled all of the emotionless technobabble with deadpan brilliance.
After that, Ramis spent far more time behind the camera than he ever spent in front of it. This isn’t to say that he fared any worse, though, as he went on to write and/or direct such terrific flicks as Groundhog Day (1993), the charming Stuart Saves His Family (1995), Multiplicity (1996), and Analyze This (1999). He occasionally appeared in motion pictures. When he did, it was often as a straight character – a smart guy with a wry outlook on things, almost fatherly to everyone around him – and his appearance elevated every scene he occupied. He had that kind of presence.
He’s gone now, left us for whatever great beyond awaits each of us, if any.
Looking back, I still don’t know the man. Never will. But he’s left a legacy in celluloid that’ll be there today, tomorrow, and for generations to come. Knowing Harold the comic genius the way I think I know him, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if he uttered the word “Rosebud” somewhere in his final moments if for no other reason than, first, to make us think and, second, to make us laugh.
R.I.P., Egon. R.I.P.
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