While Harold Ramis isn’t quite a household name, he absolutely should be. As a writer/director, the man shaped the big screen personas of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Candy, and Rodney Dangerfield, amongst others, defined the comedic tastes of a generation, and had more of an effect on American film humor than just about anybody in the past few decades. Before conquering Hollywood, Ramis performed at Second City Chicago, on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and on SCTV (where he also served as head writer). Ramis then went on to write, direct, and/or star in a string of hit comedies that includes Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and many more.
Ramis is one of the most influential comedy directors of all time and an accomplished – if underrated - performer in his own right. Throughout the 1980s, he had an iron grip on the comedy part of the movie industry that’s comparable to Judd Apatow’s behind-the-scenes dominance of the field now. Let’s take a look at the various movies that Harold Ramis has almost written, directed, or starred in throughout his impressive career.
Freshman Year (unproduced, in development late ’70s)
Before Animal House was in the works, National Lampoon came to Harold Ramis, who had previously worked on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, to get him to write the first National Lampoon movie. Ramis turned in a treatment for Freshman Year, based on his college experience, to National Lampoon business guy Matty Simmons and producer Ivan Reitman. Here’s how Ramis described his movie idea in the book The Real Animal House:
“What characterized my college years, 1962 to 1967, was the dramatic shift in mood and focus that began with the Kennedy assassination and continued through the onslaught of the free speech movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti war movement, all fueled and somewhat intensified by what I call a ‘national voluntary drug testing program.’ In that period, fraternities were becoming increasingly marginalized as students converted their anarchic energy to legitimate political protest and activism, and the free form social experiments of countercultural lifestyles like communes and collectives. In that new context, the old Greek system made less and less sense, and the film treatment I wrote attempted to describe that shift… when I submitted it to Matty and Ivan, it was clear that nobody liked it enough to move forward. What we all recognized was that it lacked the spirit and hard comic edge of the Lampoon.”
While Ramis’s original idea for a college movie might have had more heart than Animal House, Ramis has said “It was a little too redeeming, it was not cruel, it was not as sick as the movie.” If Ramis and National Lampoon had gone forward with Freshman Year, it probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as Animal House, and they wouldn’t have been able to make a movie like Animal House later on because it would have tread too similar ground to this project.
Laser Orgy Girls (unproduced, in development late ’70s)
After Matty Simmons and Ivan Reitman passed on Freshman Year, Harold Ramis began writing a script called Laser Orgy Girls with Lampoon writer, editor, and co-founder Doug Kenney. The script, which followed a teenaged Charles Manson’s adventures as a suburban high school student who meets some extraterrestrials in the desert, was well-liked by Matty Simmons, Ivan Reitman, and John Landis, the eventual director of Animal House; but it was a little too bold and brash to be unleashed on the American public at that time. Here’s Ramis on Laser Orgy Girls:
“Our story concerned Charles Manson in high school, a strangely seductive, demented loner living in the white bread world of a typical Midwestern suburb, corrupting the local youth and forming a depraved cult of flying saucer worshipping teenage zombies. We called it Laser Orgy Girls. The marketing slogan for the popular American Graffiti had been ‘Where were you in ’62?’ Ours was ‘Where was he in ’63?’ To Matty and Ivan’s credit, they actually liked it, but after a moment’s reflection suggested we go back to the idea of doing a college movie.”
As mentioned earlier, John Landis was a particularly big fan of the script, speaking its praises recently in a 2010 interview:
“Their first script was about Charles Manson in high school and, actually, it was really fucking good. There was a great opening gag in which you start out outside San Quentin. The camera goes in through the window, through the walls, through the chicken wire, down into the deepest bowels of the prison. There’s Manson in a straitjacket, padded cell, swastika carved in his forehead, and he looks up and says, ‘Is it hot in here, or am I crazy?’”
After Harold Ramis and the National Lampoon folks realized there was no way they were going to get the Manson movie made, Ramis and Doug Kenney teamed up with Lampoon writer Chris Miller. The trio combined their sensibilities to write Animal House, which would become the highest-grossing comedy ever at the time of its release.
Animal House (1978)
Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the script to Animal House, tried out for the part of college student “Boon” but was rejected. He was offered a non-speaking role in the film but was “too proud to be an extra.” Ramis would find success as an actor a few years later with prominent roles in two other comedies he wrote, Stripes and Ghostbusters.
Confederacy of Dunces (unproduced, in development 1982)
A movie adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces has been in the works since the novel’s publication in 1980 and has long thought to be a cursed project, due to several stars (John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley) becoming connected to the movie just before meeting an early demise. In 1982, before this alleged curse crystallized, Harold Ramis was set to direct a big screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with John Belushi as Ignatius J. Reilly and Richard Pryor as Burma Jones. Belushi died about a day before he was set to finalize his deal with the studio, and plans to make the movie were scrapped.
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
Harold Ramis revealed to the press in 2009 that producer Roland Joffe had asked him to direct the Super Mario Bros. movie in the early ‘90s but he had turned the offer down. The Associated Press has called this Ramis’s “smartest career decision,” and I’d have to agree. Turning such a simple video game into a movie was a bad idea to begin with and the finished product was a huge bomb. Considering that Ramis was making Groundhog Day, which is widely considered to be his best movie, around this same time, it’s safe to say the guy made the right choice.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Originally titled Captain Starshine when it was first written but then wisely changed to Galaxy Quest, this sci-fi comedy was a directing project that Harold Ramis signed onto in 1998. Ramis reportedly left the movie, though, when Disney insisted on casting Tim Allen in the lead role, and Dean Parisot took over. According to movie site Ain’t it Cool News, Kevin Kline was Ramis’s first choice but Kline turned the part down. Ramis then wanted Alec Baldwin to play the lead role but the studio nixed that idea and selected Tim Allen. Galaxy Quest ended up an above-average comedy even with Tim Allen at its center, but you can’t blame Ramis for putting his foot down and jumping ship. One has to wonder how much better this one would have been with Ramis and Baldwin at the helm.
The Slow Man (unproduced, in development 2000)
Ramis was attached to produce The Slow Man, a sci-fi/fantasy film from writer Neal Marshall Stevens. The Slow Man told the story of a female psychologist at an asylum who discovers that a patient thought to be comatose is actually living his life 100 times slower, having been moved from asylum to asylum since the Civil War. This seems like a departure from Ramis’s comedies, but the filmmaker has shown he can make a high-concept fantasy movie like this work with Groundhog Day. Ramis, who worked in the psych ward of a mental institution after graduating college, would have been able to draw from some personal experiences for this one, another reason that he would have been a nice fit for this film.
Rule Number Three (unproduced, in development 2000-01)
Robert Kuhn (Mickey Blue Eyes) wrote this action-comedy that follows a cocky firearms dealer who bullies someone he assumes is just a regular guy, only to find that the guy is an assassin who’s taken it upon himself to teach the dealer a lesson. Harold Ramis signed on to direct the movie and worked on a rewrite with Kuhn, but Ramis dropped out before production began and the movie was never made. Ramis’s people say his decision to leave the project was due to creative differences, while the studio insists it was a scheduling problem.
Guess Who (2005)
Originally titled The Dinner Party, this loose remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was offered to Harold Ramis as a directing project. Ramis turned the movie down. Here’s a reporter for The New Yorker talking to Ramis about his decision to pass on this one:
“Interracial couple, big issues, and it would be my full fee,” Ramis said. “Ashton Kutcher is in,” he later told me dryly. “So that’s a relief.” But he turned the film down. “It’s too Disney. It would need a page-one rewrite to get at the real issues.” He went on, “I have no trouble selling out—I’m a benevolent hack, in a certain way—but I want to pander for something I believe in.”
Untitled Del Close biopic (unproduced, in development circa 2006)
Harold Ramis has long wanted to make a biopic about esteemed comedy guru Del Close, the longform improv pioneer who’s trained many a comedic performer, including Gilda Radner, Bob Odenkirk, Amy Poehler, and Ramis himself, amongst countless others. Ramis has said Bill Murray, another Del Close disciple, would be perfect for the title role. Ramis and Murray had a well-known falling out following the production of Groundhog Day, but they seemed to have patched things up in recent years. Ramis has mentioned that a few drafts of a screenplay for a Del Close biopic had been completed in 2006, but the project has not moved forward.
Ghostbusters III (unproduced, in development late ’90s-ongoing)
Dan Aykroyd has been trying to make a third installment in the Ghostbusters franchise since the late ‘90s. Initially, Aykroyd had written a script for Ghostbusters: Hellbent, in which the Ghostbusters are transported to a version of hell that resembles Manhattan. Hellbent never came together after Aykroyd and Harold Ramis developed it in the late ’90s, but most of the Ghostbusters crew is still hellbent on making a third movie. The Office/Bad Teacher writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky have written a new script for a ‘passing of the torch’ Ghostbusters sequel, but Bill Murray’s lack of interest seems to be what’s been holding this project up for so many years.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.