When I heard of Harold Ramis’s death on Monday I could not help but think of his unintentional fertilization of the legend and celebration of Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog Day and consequently Punxsutawney. I feel that his contribution to our community and its national holiday’s popularity deserves a nod if not a hearty salute.
Harold Ramis was born in 1945, the son of a Chicago grocer, distinctly modest origins. He attended college at Washington University in Missouri and after graduating worked briefly as an orderly in a psychiatric ward stating, “…it was very good training, not just with actors; it was good training for living in the world.”
Ramis also had a stint at Playboy magazine editing jokes frequently written by inmates for Playboy’s Party Jokes section. While an associate editor at Playboy Harold started performing at Second City, Chicago’s improvisational theater troupe, where he met the inimitable John Belushi. It was Belushi’s talent that convinced Ramis he would not make it as a top comedian, saying, “When I saw how far he was willing to go get a laugh or to make a point on stage … I knew I’m never going to be this big.”
He contented himself with playing the quiet, understanding straight man to Bill Murray in movies including “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”. After the “Ghostbusters” sequel Ramis collaborated with writer Danny Rubins and Murray in the classic “Groundhog Day” in 1993 for which he and Rubins won a “Best Screenplay” Bafta and the undying gratitude of at least 15 residents of Punxsutawney. Despite his incredible commercial and critical success Harold was substantially unchanged from 30 years ago. Second City founder, Bernie Sahlins told the Chicago Tribune, “He’s had enormous success relatively, but none of it has gone to his head in any way. He’s the least changed by success of anyone I know in terms of sense of humor, of humility, sense of self.
While Ramis was a comedic genius he also used his films as a vehicle for communicating larger themes. Groundhog Day is often recognized as a metaphor for the possibility of self-improvement and redemption. He told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2005 that Groundhog Day expressed one man’s desperate search for meaning. Asked by the New York Times about the existential questions raised by “Groundhog Day” he mentioned he didn’t practice any religion himself. “Although I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist that is because I am on a Buddhist diet. They are supposed to remind me not to eat meat, but actually they just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.
Ramis commented years after the film’s release that he was now “welcome in churches, synagogues, mosques and psychiatrists offices all around the country.” I don’t know where you are going Harold but thank you, a dank, shukran and “Don’t drive angry.”