Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Second City's First Man of Comedy

There's a certain delicate symmetry when a person's birth city and death city are the same.

Harold Ramis has such a line on his biography.

Born: November 21, 1944; Chicago, IL.

Died: February 24, 2014; Chicago, IL.

Ramis, the comedic actor/director who passed away Monday from a rare and painful vascular disease, was as Chicago as wind, deep dish pizza and crooked elections. If you cracked him open you'd have found a Cubs cap and a megaphone.

Ramis was always smirking. He had that twinkle in his eye, as if he knew something you didn't. When it came to movie making and laugh making, he did.

Ramis was one of the leaders of a band of merry men and women who yukked it up at the original Second City improvisational theater group in Chicago, starting in the late-1960s. He was hardly alone when it came to finding fame later, but his imprint on American filmmaking puts him near the head of the class.

Ramis's first role on the big screen saw him smirking all the way through 1981's "Stripes," the comedy he co-wrote and starred in with Bill Murray, directed by Ivan Reitman. Three years later, Ramis again took to the typewriter---this time with co-star Dan Aykroyd---and wrote "Ghostbusters."

As the years went on, Ramis found more fortune staying behind the scenes, writing killer dialogue, physical comedy and directing the same.

Ramis's body of work as a writer and/or director reads like so many film critics' Top 25 lists of comedy vehicles.

"Caddyshack"; "National Lampoon's Vacation"; "Groundhog Day"; "Analyze This"; "Analyze That"; "Meatballs"; "Stripes"; "Ghostbusters"; "The Office" (TV); "National Lampoon's Animal House."

That's some serious comedy, right there. Iconic stuff.

And, of course, there was the transformation of Second City's magic of improv from stage to small screen, when Ramis was a lead writer in the 1970s and '80s on "SCTV," produced out of Canada, when Toronto joined Chicago as a major contributor of raw talent that would go on to bigger and better things.

You've heard of John Candy, right?

Ramis spun his work off "SCTV" and made his foray into film, and we laughed and laughed.


Harold Ramis: 1944-2014

In the "I am not making this up" department, Ramis once worked in a mental institution in St. Louis for seven months.

"(The experience) prepared me well for when I went out towork with actors," Ramis once said. "People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It's knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that's connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors."

Sadly, the man who brought us to tears of laughter and split our sides so often, had a painful and debilitating end as he battled his rare vascular disease.

Vasculitis develops when the body's immune system turns on its network of veins and arteries. Blood vessels become inflamed, restricting the flow of blood or cutting it off entirely, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Ramis was first diagnosed a few years ago.

Coming from someone who should know, having worn both hats, Harold Ramis once gave his analysis of the roles of writer and director.

"I always claim that the writer has done 90 percent of the director's work."

However you choose to slice it, there's no number crunching needed with this: Harold Ramis made people laugh. 

Today, Chicago is a little less windy, the deep dish pizza a little colder. Even the Cubs are worse off.

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