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How Harold Ramis Saved Ghostbusters

It’s alarming just how quickly present can switch to past tense.  News is currently spreading across the internet that 69-year-old Harold Ramis – Egon from the Ghostbusters films, director of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Multiplicity, writer/director of Caddyshack and Groundhog Dog – died earlier today.  He had been battling auto-immune inflammatory vasculitis for the past four years, with complications from the rare blood vessel disease being the cause of death.  He died in his Chicago home, surrounded by friends and family.  

My first reaction was to check Ramis’ Wikipedia page to read more about his life and career, which is when the news really hit me.  I had just found out, yet Wikipedia had already changed all of its verb tenses to refer to Ramis in the past tense, beginning with, “Harold Allen Ramis was [emphasis mine] an American director and actor.”  No, not “was.”  I grew up on countless viewings of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 on VHS, and just saw Ghostbusters in theaters for the first time a couple of years ago during its brief re-release.  Egon can’t be dead.  Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that Ramis was teasing all of us about a potential third Ghostbusters film, and lending his voice and likeness along with the Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson to Ghostbusters: The Video Game.  

Moreover, the guy who directed Groundhog Dog can’t be dead.

However, rather clearly it’s not so much that he can’t be dead but that he shouldn’t be dead because it positively sucks that he is.  Alas, we must move on from denial to acceptance (and, yes, I know I’m skipping several steps).  So, let’s do the obituary thing.  Actually, Vulture summed it up:

“After attending Washington University in St. Louis (his time in a fraternity there partly inspired Animal House) and working briefly in a mental institution, Ramis moved back to Chicago and began taking classes at Second City. It was there that he met frequent collaborators Bill Murray and John Belushi. Ramis’s first break came in 1974, when Belushi brought him to work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Working there, Ramis met Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, his co-writers on National Lampoon’s Animal House, the film that put Ramis on track to becoming one of the biggest comic forces of a generation […] Ramis and his work were a major influence on anyone who has made comic films in the past two decades. Judd Apatow, for one, said Ramis was who he wanted to be growing up. (Ramis played Seth Rogen’s father in Knocked Up.)”

Altogether, Ramis co-wrote Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack 2, Back to School, Armed and Dangerous, co-wrote and co-starred in Stripes and Ghostbusters 1 2 films, co-wrote and directed Caddyshack, Club Paradise, Groundhog Dog, Analyze This & That, Bedazzled, and Year One, and directed but did not write National Lampoon’s Vacation, Multiplicity, and The Ice Harvest.

However, with all due respect to his directorial masterpiece, Groundhog Dog, Ramis will most likely be best remembered for starring in front of the camera in the Ghostbusters films.  It’s easy to forget just how big that first Ghostbusters was when it came out in 1984, spending its first 7 weeks at #1 atop the domestic box office top 10.  Upon its initial release, it grossed an astounding $229 million, which would be like grossing $568 million at current ticket prices.  Keep in mind that last year’s top-grossing domestic release, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, only pulled down $423 million, and current box office sensation Frozen is only at $384 million.  In fact, Ghostbusters is the 33rd highest domestic grossing film of all time on the inflation-adjusted chart, 5th biggest of the ’80s behind E.T., Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Last Ark.  To put it another way, it’s a classic which WhatCulture recently argued is among the best films of all time.

None of that probably happens without Harold Ramis.  That might seem strange to say since his character in the film is just the straight man, albeit an effective straight man to the improv talents of Bill Murray.  No, his most significant contribution is being the one who managed to reign in the crazy that was and continues to be Dan Aykroyd.

ghost-busters

The original Ghostbusters concept was conceived by Dan Aykroyd, and it was either bat-shit insane or awesome sauce but most definitely un-filmmable.  According to Cracked.com:

“Basically, it consisted of Ghostbusters who not only fought ghosts, but also actually travelled through time, space, and other dimensions, the whole time fighting big, menacing monsters of which Stay Puff Marshmellow Man was only just one of many ghosts.”

According to Reitman and Ramis in the Ghostbusters DVD commentary, the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man showed up halfway through the script instead of at the end.  The whole thing was to be set in the future, and there would be teams of Ghostbusters operating much in the way paramedics and firefighters are organized in the present (thus explaining basing the Ghostbusters HQ in a firehouse).  Again, from Cracked.com:

“It was originally intended to be a vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and his buddy from SNL John Belushi, but the script was insanely expensive. Moon bases? Robot suits? Competing teams of Ghostbusters? Meeting Elvis? (All real plot points from Aykroyd’s first draft). When Aykroyd brought the script up to eventual producer/director Ivan Reitman, he told Aykroyd that he liked the concept, but felt the script needed to be changed for ‘budgetary impossibilities’. Although, through ensuing interviews, it becomes obvious Reitman just simply thought the script was insane, and Aykroyd needed to reign himself in.”

Aykroyd’s script would have cost at least $300 million to produce (and that’s in 1984 dollars).  Enter Harold Ramis, whom Reitman knew from his time directing Stripes and Meatballs.  Through his work as a writer to that point Ramis had shown a flair for grounding comedy in reality, which made him the perfect person to overhaul Aykroyd’s initial concept.  So, at Reitman’s suggestion Ramis worked with Aykroyd on completely overhauling the script, punching it out over an intense three week period in (for some reason) a Martha’s Vineyeard bomb shelter.  The script was pared down to be set strictly in the present, focus on the origins of just one group of Ghostbusters who merely battle ghosts and not other kinds of monsters, and wield proton packs for combat instead of wands.  Ramis only became involved with the process as an actor instead of just a writer when all other options for the role of Egon flamed out, although it seemed fitting since even the character name Egon Spengler was a creation of Ramis’ not present in Aykroyd’s initial draft.

That’s not to say Aykroyd wasn’t integral to the process as well.  Plus, the script shouldn’t be held as sacrosanct since interviews over the years have revealed a great deal of the dialogue in the film was improvised, particularly most of Bill Murray’s lines and almost everything Louis (Rick Moranis) says during his dinner party.  Ramis’ contributions to the script can’t be credited for those kinds of moments.  However, at a crucial point in the development of Ghostbusters it could have remained a mere 40-page treatment cooked up by a former SNL cast member/lifelong kook in Dan Aykroyd that had potential but no discipline.  Instead, through Reitman’s orchestration it was Ramis who was able to keep Aykroyd’s eccentricities in check, emphasizing the kernal of brilliance in his central concept while subtracting the craziness, replacing it with fun story in a relatable setting.  Remember that when Aykroyd was later allowed complete artistic free reign as writer and director of his own project he gave the world the truly atrocious Nothing But Trouble in 1991, which the world has been desperate to give back to Aykroyd ever since.

In a very real sense, we have Harold Ramis (and Ivan Reitman) to thank for Ghostbusters.  Sadly, Ramis is gone now, but Ghostbusters and a great many of his other films (and some not so much) will live on.

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