Interviewing Harold Ramis in 1979

Harold Ramis in 1979 during a visit to his alma mater, Washington University. Light file photo: David Henschel

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

For generations of his fans, the untimely passing of actor, screenwriter and director Harold Ramis, whose credits included “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Ghostbusters,” “Groundhog Day” and other comedy classics, came as a shock. Ramis, who died Monday at the age of 69, was a native Chicagoan who graduated from Washington University in 1966.  

My years at Wash U. overlapped with Ramis; when he was an undergraduate in Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, I was at the university’s law school. I am also an alumnus of ZBT’s rival fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi.

In 1979, a year after he had written the screenplay for the 1978 smash hit comedy, “Animal House,” Ramis came to Wash U’s Graham Chapel Lecture Series. A packed house of 700 enthusiastic students and faculty attended his talk.  Afterward, I interviewed him for the Light, where he said that several of the incidents in the film, and at least one character, were based on his ZBT memories.  A scene where “Animal House” fraternity brothers visit an all-black nightclub was inspired by the black-owned Club Riviera, on Delmar Boulevard, that Ramis and his frat brothers went to with their dates.

The “make-out artist” character, Otter, was based in part on Ramis’ fraternity brother George Clare, who by 1979 had entered his family business.

Ramis also told me that he was brought up in a middle-class Chicago Jewish neighborhood and worked in his family’s store.  “I took everything very seriously–even kindergarten,” he said.

 He recalled being “sent back to kindergarten for chewing gum” on orders of his first-grade teacher.  “I thought it was all over,” he said.  “I couldn’t find my kindergarten room, so I just started to walk home, fearing that my educational career was at an end.”

Ramis was re-admitted to first grade and continued to apply himself in school, becoming an achiever at Senn High School before going to Washington U. He said one of his teachers and mentors was the late Herb Metz of the university’s drama department.

“Going away to school and joining ZBT was really a liberating experience for me and those in the fraternity house with me,” he said. “ We lived in an atmosphere of moderately controlled violence.  We were able to do what we wanted and when we wanted to do it.  Like those in ‘Animal House’ we felt ‘we can do anything.  We’re college students.'”

Among those who attended Ramis’ speech that afternoon was classmate Kent Hirschfelder.  

When I asked Ramis about his comic influences, he said that his style was “more Woody Allen than Mel Brooks.”  He added, “With Mel Brooks, the object seems to be getting laughs for their own sake.  I prefer the style of Woody Allen.  He makes you laugh, but there is almost always a serious message behind the laugh.”

To Ramis’ many fans and friends, and to his fraternity brothers and classmates at Washington University, his memory will be for a blessing.