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Harold Ramis’ Immortal Influence

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(credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

(credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Harold Ramis may no longer be with us. But unlike almost anyone in modern film, his work will remain more loved, and live on long after most of today’s most celebrated films are forgotten.

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His passing this week genuinely shocked me. As callous as it may sound, I don’t shock or even sadden easily when I hear someone famous has died. Nine times out of ten, it’s a tragic story of some excess in their lives that leads them on a crash course most of us saw coming. But Ramis was nothing like that. In fact, his very private struggle was with a rare disease, and he was only 69.

Take a look at what this relatively young filmmaker left behind. I defy you to find anyone who hasn’t seen – at least in passing – one of his films. “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Animal House,” “Stripes,” “Groundhog Day,” “Ghostbusters,” “Meatballs,” “Analyze This,” and the first film of his directorial career – “Caddyshack.” (This is an incomplete list, I’m aware.)

But c’mon, already! His FIRST film as a director and writer was “Caddyshack”?! Is there a golfer on planet Earth who doesn’t know that film?

Listen, I’m not a huge movie buff. I like what I like — usually comedies. But ever since I was a little kid, there were always a few movies on TV that my parents and their adult friends were watching. Huge percentages of the time they were Harold Ramis films, whether I knew it or not.

I’ve been asking younger people about this just to prove my point that they’ll likely know of Ramis’ work, if not of the man himself. They may hesitate at first. But say just one fictional name to almost any American of any age and my point will, in fact be proven: Clark Griswold.

Chevy Chase, the man who played the fictional “Clark” in the National Lampoon’s “Vacation” series, issued a statement about Ramis:

“It was Harold who acted out and gave me the inspiration for the character of Clark Griswold. I was really copying Harold’s impression of Clark.”

Again, C’MON already! Harold Ramis created Clark Griswold?!

If I were an attorney, and I had to convince a jury right now that Harold Ramis was perhaps the most influential filmmaker in the world, I’d close my argument with Clark Griswold. You know why; we all know why. Clark Griswold is Christmas. The Griswolds are all of our families. Most homes on the street where you live have a holiday tradition centered on watching a Harold Ramis creation.

Harold Ramis is one of the least acclaimed writers and filmmakers, yet he’s more significant to more people than any of the most acclaimed writers and filmmakers in Hollywood.

Sure, the good writers or directors score a classic or two in their career. But to create at LEAST a half dozen comedy classics? I’d say only Mel Brooks could challenge it in the modern era, and I’m not sure Brooks quite gets it done.

Here’s something to consider if you still doubt my take on Harold Ramis’ influence: “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, was written/directed by Ramis. You might just think it’s a cute, romantic comedy that occasionally airs on cable. But it’s become much more than that over the last 20 years.

Did you know there is deep spiritual debate among Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Jews in certain academic corners that are convinced that film is rooted in their theology? A Harold Ramis comedy is taught in colleges and seminaries. Kid you not! Google it.

To me, Ramis’ significant yet secret influence isn’t a secret at all. His comedies were all so human and honest. “Ghostbusters” aside, who can’t see themselves in any number of his films and their characters?

Judge Smails, Phil Connors, Bluto Blutarsky, Clark and Ellen Griswold, Cousin Eddie, Ned Ryerson – we see ourselves in those characters – or we know someone who IS one of those characters.

The golf course, the family vacation, the fraternity parties in college, the military, the therapist’s couch – most of us have been in at least one of those situations. The memories aren’t always pleasant and neither are the people.

But Harold Ramis recognized that in all of us. And he made movies that made us laugh at arrogance, spirituality, self-loathing, social awkwardness, defeated dreams, obnoxiousness, frustration, sexual desire, friendship, and family.

He made us laugh at ourselves. And it’s why at least one of his movies is in most of our private home movie collections or revered as one of our “favorites” of all time.

Harold Ramis was closer to you and me than he was to Hollywood when he made a film. That’s why he’ll live on well after today’s Hollywood fades to black.

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