For over thirty years, Harold Ramis has been an important fixture on the American comedy scene. Born in Chicago on November 21, 1944, his early life hardly pointed to a future success in his chosen field. The son of a grocery store owner father and an office worker mother, Ramis spent most of his youth in front of a television or at the neighborhood movie theater. It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to discover a love for performing and not until college did it occur to him that this might prove the gateway to a career.
Ramis’ post-college years found him in a succession different jobs (including substitute teaching and several months as a ward orderly in a mental institution). During this same period, he began freelance writing. Features written by Ramis appeared in various Chicago papers but it wasn’t until he had a few short stories published in Playboy Magazine that his career finally slipped into gear. It was at Playboy, where Ramis was hired as jokes editor, that he had his first meaningful professional job. The desire to perform that was awakened in high school, though, still needed to find an outlet.
In 1969, Ramis began classes at Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational comedy troupe. The company, long a bastion of satire, was facing the late 60’s with an identity crisis. The sense of humor long proselytized on their mainstage was out of step with the turbulent social changes going on outside it’s Wells Street door. The time had come for a newer, edgier voice. This voice would be provided by a now-legendary group of young comedians. Over the course of the next few years, this group would come to include John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis.
In 1972, the band of comedians moved to New York City where they found a new home with off-Broadway’s The National Lampoon Show, a raucous, at times crude, but brilliantly funny cabaret show. In short order, the group then divided itself between two of the most influential comedy programs of the 1970’s: Saturday Night Live and SCTV. Ramis became both a writer and performer at the latter.
At the same time that he was working on SCTV, Ramis drew an additional benefit from his friendship with National Lampoon owner and founder Douglas Kenney. Kenney wanted to produce a film and asked Ramis and fellow writer Chris Miller to collaborate with him on the screenplay. The result was National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), a generation-defining comedy classic. It also led to a career in the movies for Harold Ramis.After the success of Meatballs, Ramis’ second film as co-author, the young screenwriter was given the opportunity to direct his first feature. Like National Lampoon’s Animal House before it, Caddyshack (1980) was an unqualified hit. This was followed up with two more co-authored works in which he also co-starred, Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984). The success of the earlier films paled in comparison to Ghostbusters. It became the most successful comedy to that date. Grossing a staggering $240,000,000, Ghostbusters was the fifth biggest box office movie of the 1980’s, eclipsed only by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman, Return of the Jedi and E.T..
The next major career milestone came in 1993. Tiring of the same formulas, Ramis took a break in the late 80’s and early 90’s to reassess the type of work he wanted to be doing. His first film after this break is generally considered his best film to date and one of the few classic film comedies of the 1990’s. Groundhog Day was both a surprise and a delight to audiences and critics alike. A spiritually based comedy about a man forced to repeat the same day over and over again until he comes to grips with his own failings, Groundhog Day, in Ramis’ own words, “For better or worse, it set a standard for me and my colleagues to make movies that were both entertaining and meaningful.” Since the release of Groundhog Day, Ramis has used his films (Multiplicity, Stuart Saves His Family, Analyze This and Bedazzled) to explore the difficulty we all face in defining our identity, not just to the outside world, but to ourselves as well.
Throughout his career, Ramis has never forgotten his love of performing. A frequent actor in the films of other directors, Ramis has appeared in such diverse recent films as Love Affair, Airheads, Baby Boom and the Academy Award winning As Good As It Gets. Ramis was awarded both the British Comedy Award and the British Academy Award in 1993 for Groundhog Day and the American Comedy Award in 1998 for Analyze This. In 2000, when the American Film Institute announced it’s list of the 100 Greatest American Comedies, films written and/or directed by Harold Ramis took up four slots, a number of mentions equal to both Charlie Chaplin and Preston Sturges. He also holds an honorary Doctorate of Arts from both his alma mater, Washington University of St. Louis (1993), and Columbia College Chicago (2001).