Film actor, writer, director and producer

Film actor, writer, director and producer

Born November 21, 1944; Died February 24, 2014.

Loading article content

Harold Ramis,who has died aged 69, was known to a generation as Dr Egon Spengler, the gawky, bespectacled parapsychologist who ran a spook control business with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in the classic 1984 comedy Ghostbusters and its sequel five years later.

However, his greatest contribution to Hollywood comedy was undoubtedly behind the cameras as a writer, director and producer. He worked on some of best comedies of the second half of the 20th century, including National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Groundhog Day (1993).

He regularly collaborated with Bill Murray. They first worked together with The Second City improvisational comedy troupe in Chicago in the late 1960s. Ramis was a freelance arts journalist when they met and he had gone along to write about the group. But in a fairly spectacular example of "going native" he wound up joining them.

He co-wrote Ghostbusters and wrote and directed Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray as a weatherman, trapped in time, forced to live the same day over and over again.

It is genuinely funny on any level, as Murray attempts to avoid the mistakes he made yesterday - or rather the previous version of today, endeavours to impress Andie MacDowell, works out the perfect ripostes in conversations and becomes proficient at piano, French and ice sculpture.

But many critics and viewers saw a deeper meaning in it, of one individual's struggle to find his place in a crazy universe. It seems to be particularly revered among Buddhists. Ramis studied Buddhism, but said he did not adhere to any religion.

Ramis was also a master of the sort of madcap silliness and comedy of escalation that might be traced back to silent movies and cartoons. In Caddyshack, Murray plays a greenkeeper at a posh golf club who embarks on a battle with a gopher, ends up trying to blow it up with explosives and destroys the golf course. In the same film a minister thanks God for the best game of golf of his life and is promptly struck dead by lightning.

Paul Weingarten wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1983 that "more than anyone else Harold Ramis has shaped this generation's ideas of what is funny."

Harold Allen Ramis was born into a Jewish-American family in 1944 in Chicago, where his parents ran their own store. He was passionate about television from an early age and spoke of sitting watching a blank screen early on Saturday mornings, waiting for the programmes to begin, determined to miss nothing.

He studied English at university, was an orderly in a psychiatric hospital and a teacher and wrote arts reviews for the Chicago Daily News. He worked with Bill Murray and John Belushi in The Second City company and on the National Lampoon radio and stage shows in New York.

"The moment I knew I wouldn't be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time," he said. "When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh or to make a point on stage, the language he would use, how physical he was, throwing himself literally off the stage, taking big falls, strangling other actors, I thought I'm never going to be this big … I learned that my thing was lobbing in great lines here and there."

He served as jokes editor on Playboy magazine, worked on a Second City television spin-off for Canadian television and soon graduated to films. He co-wrote Animal House, featuring Belushi and a bunch of fun-loving reprobates in conflict with university authorities and traditionalist students. Ramis saw comedy as inherently subversive. He said: "It's hard for winners to do comedy. We represent the underdog."

Ramis made his directorial debut with Caddyshack and co-wrote the army comedy Stripes (1981), which gave him a rare starring role as well. He and Murray play army recruits.

While Ramis's earlier films featured underdogs challenging the established order, later films presented a comic exploration of man's place in the scheme of things.

He successfully exploited Robert De Niro's Godfather persona when he had him play a gangster who goes to psychiatrist Billy Crystal in Analyze This (1999). Ramis co-wrote and directed it and the sequel Analyze That followed three years later.

His most recent credits are the film Year One (2009) with Jack Black, which he wrote and directed, and several episodes of the American version of The Office (2006-2010).

Very much his own man, he based himself in Chicago rather than Los Angeles. He was an accomplished fencer and drummer, taught himself to ski by watching it on television and made his own hats.

In the last few years, he had suffered ill health, related to autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, which involves swelling of the blood vessels, and he was confined to a wheelchair for long periods. He and Bill Murray had reportedly been estranged since falling out on Groundhog Day, but Murray visited him in recent times.

Ramis's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife Erica and by three children.