“My characters aren’t losers. They’re rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else’s rules.” –Harold Ramis
Egon Spengler was always my favorite Ghostbuster.
Everybody wanted to be Peter Venkman because, of course, because that was Bill Murray, but as a kid, I saw myself in the tall, skinny, bespectacled Egon. With the exception of Winston Zeddemore, who simply joined the team because he needed a job, the Ghostbusters were all nerds really, though Egon not only had the dorky name, but the look that went along with it. I didn’t collect spores, molds, and fungus, but I did take note that you didn’t have to be built like He-Man or swing a sword around in a loincloth to be a hero – you just had to be smart.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Harold Ramis, who recently passed away at the age of 69, also co-wrote both “Ghostbusters” films, and by then it had also dawned on me that Venkman and Ray Stantz were geeks, too – all unemployed outcasts mocked by their peers. They were what society would consider losers, and people thought they were crazy to boot. They forged ahead and did what they believed was right anyway, directly in the face of fellow scientists, law enforcement, and the entire skeptical city of New York. It turns out that they’re not only right, but they save the very people that dismissed them as outsiders in the first place. Ramis, along with his fellow funnymen, were saying something there, even if my generation didn’t catch it during our first 100 viewings growing up in the ‘80s.
When one thinks of a rebel, the image of a tough guy wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses and riding a motorcycle may come to mind, but Ramis’ best work showcased a much different type of rebel. From “National Lampoon’s Animal House” to “Meatballs” to “Caddyshack” to “Stripes,” it wasn’t the handsome movie star flexing his muscles to save the day – it was the underdog – a scruffy, out-of-shape dork who didn’t fit in wherever he was supposed to simply being himself, paving his own way no matter what others thought. Even in “Groundhog Day,” Murray has to learn to embrace the very best in himself to continue living into the next day – his life is what he makes of it, not the crappy cards he was dealt by life, society, or his own bad attitude.
Not only did Ramis make us see the “loser” in a different light, he made that guy the standard for American comedy thereafter. From Kevin Smith to Judd Apatow, from Adam Sandler to Seth Rogan, it’s hard not to see the influence in an archetype we now take for granted. If only we valued our rebels as much in real life as we do in our entertainment, though I think Ramis’ films have helped alter that perception.
Since his untimely passing, New Yorkers have been leaving Twinkies and other trinkets outside the Hook and Ladder No. 8, a.k.a. the Ghostbusters firehouse, sharing their geeky love for the man with references to his famous character. Egon wasn’t the most outspoken Ghostbuster, and he probably spent too much of his childhood straightening out Slinkys, but he was always the smartest man in the room who never seemed to rub that fact in anyone’s face, instead just putting those smarts to good use. I imagine Ramis was much like his character in that sense.
As celebrities, including Murray at the Academy Awards last Sunday, continue to pay tribute to him and share their stories of his kind, warmhearted nature, it becomes clear that he wasn’t a typical celebrity, remaining humble about his accomplishments and staying out of the spotlight. (Hell, I’m a huge fan and had no idea he was as ill as he was.) I hope the message that people take away from his life is that you don’t have to be a dashing young superman to star in or create some of the greatest and most beloved films of all time. You just have to be yourself, and many times that involves sticking your neck out and being labeled a rebel.
That isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, but because of them, you just may have some people rooting for you. See you on the other side, Mr. Ramis.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at [email protected]