The movie was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” The theater was Century 12 Evanston. The man sitting behind me was Harold Ramis, though I was initially unaware of his presence. I had just entered the theater after a pre-movie pitstop in the men’s room (considering the film’s 157-minute running time, it was a wise decision to say the least). Then I sat down without having the slightest clue that my family had already introduced themselves to Mr. Ramis, chatted with him and his two sons, and informed him that I was currently a film major enrolled at Columbia College. Suddenly, a voice harboring more than a faint trace of Egon slyly asked, “Is there a film major somewhere in this theater?”
It was the sort of magical moment akin to that of children discovering Santa munching on homemade cookies in their living room. I turned my head and saw before me a face so brimming with warmth and gaiety that it would’ve melted the heart of the most venomous cynic. Resembling the whimsical hybrid of a rabbi and a teddy bear, Ramis happily indulged in several minutes of small talk with me, as I maintained a cool head, having had a few previous experiences rubbing shoulders with famous faces in the Windy City. Yet inside, I was jumping up and down with joy.
I never mentioned to him that my family had made a point of watching “Groundhog Day” every year on Groundhog Day, or that I grew up in the town right next to where his film was shot, or that my family accidentally walked onto the set during filming, prompting a policeman to shout, “Hey!” and everyone in the cast and crew to temporarily thrust their heads in our direction for one mortifying moment. I assumed these were the sort of stories Ramis had heard over and over again, and I had no intention of channeling Ned Ryserson. Instead I asked him about his new film, “The Ice Harvest,” and whether he had any plans of making a film in Chicago in the near future (I was secretly hoping I would end up onset as a production assistant).
As a rather devoted “Potter” fan, I had been looking forward to “Goblet of Fire” for quite some time, but all throughout the film, all I could think of was the extraordinary person seated behind me. Every once in a while, I’d hear him ask his kids, “Would you like a taste of popcorn?” Five years later, I interviewed Ramis one-on-one at The Shops at North Bridge on Michigan Avenue, and recalled our initial encounter. He told me that when the “Potter” franchise film rights were announced, he called his agent and said, “My kids read this book, I like it, could you get me the job?” He was informed that the rights had already been promised, but that “Harry Potter 3” or “4” were free for the taking. Ramis turned them down, replying, “This franchise isn’t going to last.”
After learning of his sudden passing today, I immediately flashed back to these few fleeting moments I was honored and fortunate enough to spend in the presence of this great and tender man, as friendly and generous as anyone I had ever met. I told him about how much I loved the character-driven nature of his comedies, particularly “Ghostbusters,” and how he never allowed special effects to overtake the wit or humanity of his scripts. I also voiced my admiration for the ways in which he attempted to grapple with spiritual and philosophical issues within his deceptively straightforward satires. His response was memorable:
“The danger with all popular entertainment is that it’s trivial and forgettable, and has no real reason to be there, other than to waste your time, and provide employment for a lot of people. The employment part I get, the wasting of other people’s time I don’t get. People ask me what I watch on network television, and there’s a lot of good stuff. I wouldn’t put down the quality of it, but much of it doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t see how it affects my life. I don’t see how it teaches me anything or makes me think about anything.
Take a movie like ‘A Serious Man,’ for instance. I saw it twice months ago and I’m still thinking about it. [The film explores] huge existential issues that are really bothersome—things that we’re trying to escape from with most conventional entertainment. Those are the very things I want to think about. I heard people leaving the theater saying, ‘When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think,’ and I think, ‘Well, just shoot yourself in the head!’ I was at ‘The Long Red Road’ at the Goodman Theatre the other day. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed it, and it’s very bleak, very dark and tragic. At the intermission, I heard one guy say to another, ‘Well, it’s no ‘My Fair Lady.’ [laughs] Well, yeah there’s a place for ‘My Fair Lady,’ but there’s a place for this too.”
At one point, a young man briefly interrupted our interview to tell Ramis how much he enjoyed his work. Rather than dismiss the impromptu vexation, the director turned and gave the stuttering young man one of his signature gape-mouthed smiles, thanking him with what appeared to be purely authentic gratitude, before turning his gaze back toward me. Thank you, Harold, for showing me what it means to live a life worth living.
Harold Ramis at Columbia College’s Cinema Slapdown screening of Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” I’m one of the people laughing in the audience.