Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Remembering Russell Ziskey

In the summer of 1981 I was working at Quaker Lake Camp, and at the end of Senior High Week we got an extra day off (for reasons I don't remember). We normally were only off from noon on Saturdays until 2 PM on Sundays, so trips were out of the question. With my extra 24 hours I decided to drive to Myrtle Beach. By myself. No campers, no one to entertain- just me. Being 21 years old, single and solo in Myrtle Beach was pretty much the dream for me in those days. I could sit on the motel balcony, play the guitar, flirt with strange girls as they passed by and enjoy the ocean in all its glory. There was only one problem. On Saturday afternoon it rained. All afternoon. And I needed something to do.

I drove down to the local multiplex cinema to see what was playing and found that both of the movies I was dying to see were playing (I should point out that in those days some theaters didn't get certain movies, so finding them both was indeed a surprise!). One was Mel Brooks' (another guy who changed comedy forever!History of the World, Part 1.  The other was Bill Murray in Stripes. Bill Murray won the initial coin flip. 

Early in the movie we were introduced to Murray's co-star, an actor named Harold Ramis playing the role of Russell Ziskey. Russell is teaching an English as a second language class, and his methods are very unique. No one in the class peaks any English, although one student does say he speaks "some of it." Ziskey asks him what words he knows and the whole class begins repeating after him- "Son of b*tch. Sh*t." Russell then finishes the class by teaching them this (a scene that would be repeated quite often at QLC over the next couple of years with younger campers):

The longer the movie lasted the funnier Harold Ramis became, and I remember being amazed that this newcomer could match Bill Murray's comic chops. Stripes was quickly added to my list of comedy classics, and I still quote lines from it on a regular basis (That's the fact, Jack!). To finish the story of that day, I should add that it was still raining when I came out of the theater, so I turned around and bought a ticket to History of the World as well. FUNNIEST. DAY. EVER!!!

By the time Ramis showed up again 3 years later in Ghostbusters (which he also co-wrote) I was already a huge fan. His performance as Egon Spengler was nothing short of brilliant. Even Ghostbusters 2 (see clip below) had some great moments. But I was still unaware that there was much more to Harold Ramis than I knew at the time. He didn't just "show up" in Stripes. He had been a driving force behind some of the great comedies of all-time even before 1981. It was just not as an actor.

Ramis was one of the primary writers for both Animal House and Meatballs in 1978. He directed the all-time classic Caddyshack in 1980. After Stripes, he would go on to be the voice of Marty Moose in National Lampoon's Vacation, which he also directed. And in 1993 he would write and direct one of the truly overlooked classic movies of our time, Groundhog Day - which for me may end up being his most enduring masterpiece. It is not hyperbole to call Harold Ramis a comic genius, or to say that the Judd Apatows, Will Ferrells and Adam Sandlers of the world bow to him every time they make a comedy. His movies changed the genre forever. Just pause for a moment and think- what would a comic world without Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation,  Ghostbusters, Stripes and Groundhog Day be like?  I'm so glad we don't have to know...

Harold Ramis passed away on Monday at the age of 69. He had been in bad health with a rare disease for a number of years. My son Will sent me a text with the news, knowing it would make me as sad as it made him. I tweeted soon after that "Harold Ramis is dead, and the world just got a lot less funny." His work inspired me. I think I could go an entire day and quote lines from his movies in every sentence that I speak. He made me laugh...not just chuckle, but LAUGH. What a great gift to share with the world. R.I.P, Russell Ziskey. May there be "one heavily armed recreational vehicle" waiting for you on the other side...

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