I was driving back home across Pennsylvania Monday night when news of Harold Ramis' death at 69 came over the radio.
I was surprised at how sad I felt. I knew his masterpiece, "Groundhog Day,'' which he co-wrote and directed, and his sly comedic turns as Bill Murray's sidekick in "Stripes'' and "Ghostbusters,'' movies that Ramis also wrote.
But I was surprised to hear the breadth of his work. Ramis is generally not in the conversation when we talk about America's great comic filmmakers. One could start with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, and then go from the Marx Brothers through Mel Brooks and Woody Allen to Albert Brooks or Judd Apatow and never hear Ramis' name.
Yet four movies that Ramis either co-wrote or directed (or both) over a 15-year stretch are ranked among the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest American Films: "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), "Caddyshack'' (1980), "Ghostbusters'' (1984) and "Groundhog Day" (1993).
Throw in Ramis' writing credits for "Meatballs,'' "Back to School'' and "Analyze This,' and his directing credit for "National Lampoon's Vacation" and 13 other films. Some were duds, but breathes there anyone with soul so dead that he has never quoted a line from Ramis?
If there is, please don't seat him next to me.
Ramis may be quoted more often without credit, or even knowledge of the author, than any jokester since whoever came up with that first one about changing a light bulb. Filmmaking is such a collaborative art, and Ramis worked with so many masters of improvisational comedy, that it may be impossible to know how much credit goes to Ramis or Murray or John Belushi or Chevy Chase. But what I love about a Ramis comedy is that they're as American as apple pie -- in the face.
When Ramis wrote about a country club, it was from the blue collar vista of the caddies. When he wrote about the U.S. Army, buck privates took over the call and response of close-order drill with "Do Wah Diddy Diddy'' and crashed through the Iron Curtain in a heavily armed RV. He reached his zenith with an only-in-America holiday, and in so doing made "Groundhog Day'' a term for experiencing the same thing over and over again, as Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors does in the film.
That simple conceit shouldn't work as well as it does, yet it's brilliant.
I confess that when that flick hit the big screen 21 years ago this month, I was alarmed at the pressure Ramis and Murray suddenly had put on their baby boom brethren. Murray got Andie MacDowell to fall in love with him by the end of the movie, of course, but not in the comfortable, slovenly way of previous Murray/Ramis collaborations.
Never your classic leading man, Murray had previously given goofballs prestige. Uncombed heads prevailed. The scraggly guy in the bad jacket won. Sloths had sex appeal. Following Ramis' scripts, Murray had won the hearts of Sigourney Weaver in "Ghostbusters'' and of forgettable women in "Stripes'' and "Meatballs'' by wearing them down with shallow, suggestive banter until they gave up trying not to laugh.
By the end of "Groundhog Day,'' though, Murray was a renaissance man. He was accomplished in music, well-read, a sculptor, a lifesaver. The film was telling us to stop whining about the dull sameness of our lives and do something. Take a class. Learn a skill. Improve yourself. Grow.
I hadn't been that shaken up since "The Exorcist.''
Ramis told the Austin American-Statesman in 2005 that he'd like to be remembered most for "Groundhog Day.'' "I think everyone harbors a craving for meaning in life,'' he said, "and the movie, without being cloying or embarrassing, asserts the possibility of redemption through meaning.''
Ranking comedies may be a fool's errand. When Howard Stern recently asked Jerry Seinfeld to rank himself on the all-time list of standup comics, Seinfeld refused, saying, "Comedy is more personal than food. ... Somebody hits you funny, or they don't.''
Ramis' obituary in The New York Times quotes him indirectly saying he had made two -- maybe four -- films that might get him a footnote in film history. "He did not specify which ones,'' the Times wrote.
"Groundhog Day'' is surely one. Had that been Ramis' only film, he'd be remembered. We can argue about the other three films on his all-time list and throw punchlines back and forth long into the night. I'd say we should all be so lucky to have such a legacy, but we already are.
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.