I was surprised to hear of the death of Harold Ramis today at the age of 69 after a long illness. I took some today to look at Mr. Ramis’ filmography. I knew he had written such iconic films as “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Groundhog Day,” but I had never truly stopped and thought about how his body of work impacted me on a personal level until today.
I was born at the beginning of the 1980’s, a decade when the writing talents of Mr. Ramis were in full flower. By the time I was born, he had already co-written “Meatballs” and “Caddyshack,” as well as made his mark on the television series SCTV. SCTV not only launched the careers of John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara, but influenced future writers such as “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. Mr. Ramis’ work became some of my first exposure with cinema and storytelling–and certainly the most compelling to me at an early age. I was far too young for the Baby Boomer political comedy of “Stripes,” but Mr. Ramis’ later films became important touchstones to my generation. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” gave us the term “Wally World,” which we applied to big box behemoth Wal-Mart in later years. “Ghostbusters” was one of the first films that ever resonated with me personally. Mr. Ramis, who co-wrote the film with Dan Aykroyd, managed to blend comedy and action into a what is at heart a ghost story. Then, of course, there was the merchandising of Ghostbusters. The toys were ubiquitous in the toy boxes of my generation, not to mention The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which ran from 1986-1991. It may be difficult for early generations to understand, but for my age group, films like “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters” might as well have been “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone with the Wind.” We never really knew a time when they weren’t a part of the collective American cinema experience.
In 1993, “Groundhog Day” was released, which Mr. Ramis co-wrote with Danny Rubin. I was just then approaching my angst-fuel teenage years. I remember watching the film for the first time one evening on cable, alone in my bedroom. I am not certain if I was actually watching it during a particularly gray patch of Midwestern winters, but the fate of Bill Murray’s character resonated with me. One man repeating the same day over and over until the end of time–caught in an uncontrollable loop of the same people and places, his actions having no impact on the future. For an overly-dramatic writer-type with the urge to see the world, the film hit home. The film didn’t just resonate with me alone, though. It’s solidified a place in pop culture for the foreseeable future. The film was selected for preservation by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2006. The term “groundhog day” has entered into the lexicon, too. The term is used in military circles to describe the monotony that active duty sometimes entails. The films existential nature has been lauded by Buddhists and Catholics alike. I won’t dwell too much on it here, but a quick internet search for “groundhog day movie” and “Buddhism,” “Catholicism” or “Christianity” will turn up quite a few interesting articles.
For me, Harold Ramis’ stories were catalysts for some of the most engaging cinematic times of my early life. They provided a backdrop and language to the way we experienced pop culture and, for me personally, the ways in which I learned to tell stories. He was a comedic writer whose stature will only grow with time now that he is gone.