At 69 years old, Harold Ramis has this physical status:
Ramis began writing parodic plays in college, saying years later, "In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo Marx, of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo's antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy—he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it." He avoided the Vietnam War military draft by taking methamphetamine to fail his draft physical.
Following his work in St. Louis, Ramis returned to Chicago, where by 1968, he was a substitute teacher at schools serving the inner-city Robert Taylor Homes. He also became associated with the guerrilla television collective TVTV, headed by his college friend Michael Shamberg, and wrote freelance for the Chicago Daily News. "Michael Shamberg, right out of college, had started freelancing for newspapers and got on as a stringer for a local paper, and I thought, 'Well, if Michael can do that, I can do that.' I wrote a spec piece and submitted it to the Chicago Daily News, the Arts & Leisure section, and they started giving me assignments [for] entertainment features." Additionally, Ramis had begun studying and performing with Chicago's Second City improvisational comedy troupe.
Ramis's newspaper writing led to him becoming joke editor at Playboy magazine. "I called…just cold and said I had written several pieces freelance and did they have any openings. And they happened to have their entry-level job, party jokes editor, open. He liked my stuff and he gave me a stack of jokes that readers had sent in and asked me to rewrite them. I had been in Second City in the workshops already and Michael Shamberg and I had written comedy shows in college." Ramis was eventually promoted to associate editor.
After leaving Second City for a time and returning in 1972, having been replaced in the main cast by John Belushi, Ramis worked his way back as Belushi's deadpan foil. In 1974, Belushi brought Ramis and other Second City performers, including Ramis's frequent future collaborator Bill Murray, to New York City to work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour.
During this time, Ramis, Belushi, Murray, Joe Flaherty, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner starred in the revue The National Lampoon Show, the successor to National Lampoon's Lemmings. Later, Ramis became a performer on, and head writer of, the Canadian sketch-comedy television series SCTV during its first three years (1976–1979). At this juncture, SCTV was seen mainly in Canada, and also via syndication in scattered markets in the US. He was soon offered work as a writer at Saturday Night Live but chose to continue with SCTV. Characterizations by Ramis on SCTV include weaselly, corrupt and constantly sweating Dialing for Dollars host/SCTV station manager Maurice "Moe" Green, outwardly amiable (but thoroughly fascist) cop Officer Friendly, exercise guru Swami Bananananda (whose real name was Dennis Peterson), stern board chairman Allan "Crazy Legs" Hirschman and home dentist Mort Finkel. His celebrity impressions on SCTV included Kenneth Clark and Leonard Nimoy.
In 1984, Ramis executive produced a music/comedy/variety television show called The Top. The producer was Paul Flattery and the director was David Jove. Ramis got involved after the mysterious death of his friend Peter Ivers, who had hosted Jove's underground show New Wave Theatre. He called Jove and offered to help. Flattery and Jove pitched him the idea for The Top, and Ramis was instrumental in getting it on the air.
The show was a mixture of live music, videos, and humor. Performers on the show included Cyndi Lauper, who performed "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "True Colors"; the Hollies, who performed "Stop in the Name of Love"; and the Romantics, who performed their two hits at the time, "Talking in Your Sleep" and "What I Like About You."
Guest stars included Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd. Ramis got Bill Murray to host but, because Ghostbusters filming ran late, he did not make it to the taping. Chase came out dressed as a "punk" of the time and somehow got into a physical altercation with an audience member (also a punk) during the opening monologue. He immediately left the taping. Flattery and Jove carried on with the show.
Ramis then got Andy Kaufman to fill in for Chase and recorded the host segments at a separate, later, session; it would be Kaufman's final professional appearance.
The Top aired on Friday, January 27, 1984, at 7 p.m. It scored a 7.7% rating and a 14% share. This represented a 28% rating increase and a 27% share increase over KTLA's regularly scheduled Happy Days/Laverne and Shirley.
Ramis left SCTV to pursue a film career and wrote a script with National Lampoon magazine's Douglas Kenney, which eventually became National Lampoon's Animal House. They were later joined by a third collaborator, Chris Miller. The 1978 film followed the struggle between a rowdy college fraternity house and the college dean. The film's humor was raunchy for its time. Animal House "broke all box-office records for comedies" and earned $141 million.
He also had a voice part as Zeke in the "So Beautiful & So Dangerous" segment of Heavy Metal in 1981.
Ramis next co-wrote the comedy Meatballs, starring Bill Murray. The movie was a commercial success and became the first of six film collaborations between Murray and Ramis. His third film and his directorial debut was Caddyshack, which he wrote with Kenney and Brian Doyle-Murray. It starred Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, and Bill Murray. Like Ramis's previous two films, Caddyshack was a commercial success.
In 1982, Ramis was attached to direct the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The film was to star John Belushi and Richard Pryor, but the project was aborted. In 1984, Ramis collaborated with Dan Aykroyd on the screenplay for Ghostbusters, which became one of the biggest comedy hits of all time, in which he also starred as Dr. Egon Spengler. He reprised the role for the 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters II (which he also co-wrote with Aykroyd). His later film Groundhog Day has been called his "masterpiece."
His films have been noted for attacking "the smugness of institutional life…with an impish good [will] that is unmistakably American." They are also noted for "Ramis's signature tongue-in-cheek pep talks." Sloppiness and improv were also important aspects of his work. Ramis frequently depicted the qualities of "anger, curiosity, laziness, and woolly idealism" in "a hyper-articulate voice."
Ramis also occasionally acted in supporting roles in acclaimed films that he did not write or direct, such as James L. Brooks's Academy Award-winning As Good as It Gets (1997) and Judd Apatow's hit comedy Knocked Up (2007).
In 2004, Ramis turned down the opportunity to direct the Bernie Mac-Ashton Kutcher film Guess Who, then under the working title "The Dinner Party," because he considered it poorly written. That same year, he began filming the low-budget The Ice Harvest, "his first attempt to make a comic film noir." Ramis spent six weeks trying to get the film greenlit because he had difficulty reaching an agreement about stars John Cusack's and Billy Bob Thornton's salaries. The film received mixed reviews. In 2004, Ramis's typical directing fee was $5 million.
In an interview in the documentary American Storytellers, Ramis said he hoped to make a film about Emma Goldman (even pitching Disney with the idea of having Bette Midler star) but that none of the film studios were interested and that it would have been difficult to raise the funding.
Ramis said in 2009 that he planned to make a third Ghostbusters film for release either in mid-2011 or for Christmas 2012. A reboot to the franchise, also called Ghostbusters, was eventually made and released in 2016, directed and co-written by Paul Feig. In this film, a bronze bust of Ramis can be seen when Erin Gilbert leaves her office at Columbia University. Later, the second sequel to the original film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, was released in 2021 and posthumously dedicated to him.