Harold Ramis, whose four-decade-plus career as a performer, writer and director stretched from stage to radio to TV to the movies, often found himself overshadowed by his co-stars and his many comic creations, from "National Lampoon's Animal House" to "Ghostbusters" to "Groundhog Day."
But the original "Second City TV" head writer, who played second banana to the likes of Bill Murray and John Candy, had few peers in terms of comedy influence and producing sheer hilarity.
Ramis, who died Monday at age 69, will be remembered as a singular comic talent who helped shape the current landscape of laughter with a wit both sharp and silly, wielded with intelligence, heart and a seemingly never-ending reservoir of humor.
As a performer, Ramis, with his big glasses and sometimes bigger hair, specialized in oddballs and misfits. In an early "Second City TV" bit, he memorably played the tragic farmer Muley from "The Grapes of Wrath" as the host of a children's television show, introducing "Three Stooges"-like shorts ("You don't think I'm tetched, do you, boys and girls?"). In "Stripes," Ramis shined as a deluded, snarky loser who joins the Army with his more outgoing pal, played by Murray (Ramis’s silent mugging during Candy's monologue introducing himself to fellow soldiers stole the scene).
For many, Ramis will be best remembered as the hyper-serious, jargon-spouting, proto-geek Dr. Egon Spengler of "Ghostbusters," who famously warned against crossing the streams ("Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light").
He enjoyed great comic chemistry with Murray, and never hesitated to let his more famous accomplice get the big laugh. Ramis parlayed his willingness to let others shine into his behind-the-scenes role as a director and writer who became the answer for many to "Who you gonna call?" for quality humor.
If timing is everything in comedy, then Ramis arrived on the entertainment scene at a key point to help bridge the parallel comic sensibilities of National Lampoon (he got an early start on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour”), "Second City TV" and "Saturday Night Live." The crossing of the streams yielded waves of laughter.
His oeuvre ranged from the Murray-driven teen romps of "Meatballs" and "Caddyshack" to the escalating absurdity and delightfully dubious taste that was "National Lampoon's Vacation" to the latter-day screwball comedy "Groundhog Day." Ramis helped Robert DeNiro find his comic voice in "Analyze This" and gave Rodney Dangerfield a platform for his in “Back to School.”
In 1978, Ramis co-wrote "Animal House," perhaps the most influential movie comedy of the last four decades, spawning generations of gut-busting, big box office films combining gross-out gags, silly-smart humor and just enough humanity to (barely) redeem them – from “There’s Something About Mary" to "Bridesmaids" to the "Hangover" flicks.
Just six years later, "Ghostbusters" became the first comedy blockbuster to meld special effects with humor – a genre, from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” to “Men in Black,” that’s stuck to the big screen like the gooey remains of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
It's sad to learn that Ramis was taken too soon from his family and his fans. But he left us a treasure trove of comedy that holds up under repeated viewings – and, unlike Murray's repetitive travails in "Groundhog Day," will never grow old.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.