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Meanwhile, on a lark, he grabbed the name of an editor off the masthead of Chicago-based Playboy magazine and talked his way into an interview, landing a job as a writer for the Party Jokes section. He became editor of the page, and later broadened his scope to include celebrity Q&As.

But then his acting career kicked in. As coincidence, or karma, would have it, his former editor at the Daily News knew the new director of Second City, and wrangled him an audition. Now he was working forty hours a week at Playboy and six nights a week at Second City. His wife noticed they didn’t have a life together, so Ramis quit it all and the couple traveled. It was 1970.

 “When I look back on it,” he said, breaking into a grin, “every time I consider the incredible synchronicity of what happened, and how it happened, and who I met and when, I smile because it still amazes me. It’s about karma, isn’t it? I read karma as cause and effect, triggering a chain of causation.”

If the start of his film career could be traced to one person, place or thing, it would be the hefty manifestation of John Belushi. First, when Ramis chose not to return to Second City after his travels, Belushi was hired to replace him. Later, Belushi, by then a rising star, got the call to go to New York for National Lampoon’s first stage show, Lemmings. He was allowed to tap whomever he wanted to be part of the company. Ramis had become known as a consummate straight man, and was among those called. That led to him being asked to write a treatment for a possible Lampoon film, to be directed by John Landis and produced by Ivan Reitman. He asked to work on it with editors Doug Kenny and Chris Miller, and while he served as head writer for the TV version of Second City, the three toiled on the script.

The film became Animal House, considered the spearhead of the gross-out genre. Since its initial release in 1978, the film has garnered an estimated $140 million in ticket, video, and DVDs sales. In 2001, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It also introduced into our cultural zeitgeist such phrases as “food fight” and “toga, toga!”

“When we were writing Animal House, we thought we were writing the funniest movie in history—we were that arrogant,” Ramis recalled. Asked if that might sound a tad egotistical, he quipped, “Well, I always say false modesty is better than no modesty at all.”

Four Ramis films—Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day—are on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Laughs” list. He proudly displays the plaque in the foyer of the small offices of his production company, Ocean Pictures, upstairs from his favorite Greek restaurant in Highland Park, north of Chicago.

 Pointers to things spiritual abound even in the light comedy Caddyshack, starring Rodney Dangerfield as a loudmouth who abhors the protocols of a snooty country club, Chevy Chase as the unflappable playboy with no apparent source of income, and Bill Murray as the demented Vietnam vet turned golf course groundskeeper who takes out his hatred of the Vietcong on gophers.

Reference is made to the Japanese haiku poet Basho, and Chase’s character encourages a golf protégé to “be the ball,” a nod to Golf in the Kingdom, a book by Esalen Institute founder Michael Murphy. Ramis takes particular glee in a zany rant by Murray about caddying for the Dalai Lama, which he says is perhaps the first time His Holiness is mentioned in an American film. And it’s from the mouth of Judge Smail, played by Ted Knight, that the quintessential Ramis question arises: “The most important decision you can make right now is what do you stand for, goodness…or badness?”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, a spiritual advisor to Ramis, said he found the shadow of what Buddhists call the “hungry ghost” in one of his darkest films, The Ice Harvest, a 2005 black comedy about larceny, lust, and lethal behavior in icebound Kansas on a Christmas Eve, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. He told Ramis the movie “demonstrates that you can never get enough of what you really don’t need.”

Rabbi Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, recognizes the ethical thread interweaving Buddhism and Judaism. He took part in a three-day seminar with the Dalai Lama in Milan in December, 2007, and met Ramis at High Holy Days services in Chicago.

 I would call Harold an ethically responsible spiritual pluralist with Jewish roots and Buddhist tendencies,” he said. “Both traditions understand that we laugh so we don’t get too attached to our suffering, that we are not our suffering. Both are comfortable asking difficult questions in a light-hearted way. Harold is especially comfortable dancing with uncertainty.”

 

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