updated 02/24/2014 AT 4:15 PM ET
•originally published 02/24/2014 AT 4:40 PM ET
We’re losing them too fast, aren’t we? Today comes the sad news that comedy legend Harold Ramis passed away from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis at age 69. He was old enough to have influenced a generation of comedy writers, from Adam Sandler to Judd Apatow, but gosh, 69 still feels too young.
Most viewers will remember Ramis as Egon Spengler, the dry one in his landmark ‘84 hit Ghostbusters. No, the really dry one – the egghead who strapped Rick Moranis into some sort of cranial contraption to hear him spout about the return of Gozer the Traveler; the one who explained the amount of psychic energy running amok in New York City as equivalent to the size of a 35-foot Twinkie; the guy who issued a grave warning not to cross the streams. (He was wrong about that last one, it turns out.)
Ramis had plenty of other noteworthy roles as well, a gentle, knowing kindness always carrying through. He was Seth Rogen’s sweet, accepting dad in Knocked Up, Diane Keaton’s far less accepting boyfriend in Baby Boom and in Stripes, he played Russell Ziskey, the enlisted man who couldn’t quite believe what he’d gotten himself into, alongside frequent collaborator, Bill Murray, with whom he famously fell out.
But Ramis found his most lasting legacy as a director and writer. He wrote the screenplays for comedy classics like Animal House, Meatballs and Back to School. He helped Robert De Niro reinvent himself as a funny man by writing and directing Analyze This and Analyze That. He also went behind the camera for Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, adding his particularly smart brand of silliness.
But you don’t have to be a comedy purist to argue that Ramis’s best directorial work was for Groundhog Day, one of a half dozen films he did with Murray. That film, about a weatherman stuck in a nightmare loop of a repeating day, is vintage Ramis. It’s funny, absolutely, but also tempered by existential ennui, the sameness of a life not well lived forcing Murray’s Phil to realize what a cretin he’s become. Ramis’s last film, 2009’s Year One, with Jack Black and Michael Cera, wasn’t up to his best work. But that hardly matters in a career that came to define what funny movies were to multiple generations of viewers.
By all accounts, Ramis was also a heck of a guy, willing to work with younger writers and pass on what he knew. We’ll always have his films, those beautiful, unhinged pieces that spoke distinctly of his sensibility. But I can’t help but miss the jokes he would have made the next time around. Call it sentimental, call it cheesy, but I’ll be toasting a marshmallow in his honor.