Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A tribute to Harold Ramis and Dr. Egon Spengler, the coolest Ghostbuster.

 As kid, when my friends and I would throw on our toy proton packs to play Ghostbusters, I was always Egon.  Maybe he was my favorite.  Maybe he was just the one I resembled the most.  After all these years, I don't totally remember why.  I just remember thinking that Venkman was too much of a smart ass and Ray was kind of a man child.

But Egon - Egon was cool.

With the passing of his portrayer Harold Ramis on Monday, I've seen many, many reflections on Egon and on Ramis's other work in general.  A number of people have remarked on how "Egon was a nerd who acted like how nerds really are."  I don't know if I'd have put it that way, but at least he's not Sheldon Cooper or Steve Urkel, and for that we are grateful.

The particular types of nerds those two characters represent are usually socially awkward and frequently the butt of the joke.  Urkel is also excessively clumsy while Sheldon is an insufferable whiner defined largely by a superiority complex the size of a Dyson Sphere and an inability to adapt to any circumstance with an axis that doesn't revolve around his desires.

And then there's Egon.  A lesser movie would have made him the nerdy geek who Venkman picks on.  Instead, Ramis makes him a guy capable of holding his own against the scientist with the personality of a game show host.  There's a quiet confidence that Ramis brings to the character, avoiding both the awkwardness and arrogance present in most film nerds.  When his secretary starts flirting with him, his reaction isn't to trip all over himself, but instead he remains aloofly oblivious.  Or maybe he knows and he's playing his own game of hard to get.

I'm sure at some point in everyone's life, they're friends with someone whom others don't "get."  You know, the friend who makes a scene at a party, or who always causes trouble when you go into a restaurant.  I'm sure we've all had the feeling of, "Ugh, I have to put up with this guy. I'm friends with him, but would it kill him to be more mature?"

The next time you watch GHOSTBUSTERS, pretend that is Egon's inner monologue in every scene with Venkman.  Any time Egon offers an odd-on-its-face reply to Venkman's wise-assery, pretend that he's messing with Venkman.  Case in point:

Venkman: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head, remember that?
Egon: That would have worked if you hadn't stopped me.

There are a couple ways to read this dialogue.  First, there's the possibility that it's meant to be taken at face value.  Egon really tried to drill a hole in his head.  But that seems so crazy for a guy that smart that I suggest a second possibility - that Egon was doing some other kind of experiment in para-psychology and the chronically-terrible-student Venkman only half-remembers what it was about.  In this version, Egon's probably a bit bemused that Venkman reduces a complex procedure to something so mundane.  (This IS the guy who says, "pretend for a minute I don't know anything about I don't know anything about metallurgy, engineering, or physics" later in the film.)

And then there's the third possibility - that Venkman is just riffing and Egon volleys it back to him with perfect dry delivery.  The beauty of Ramis's performance is that it's layered enough that all three of those interpretations could be true.

Watch the film with the mindset that Egon is the smartest guy in the room and that his quiet confidence comes from the fact he doesn't need to prove it.  Venkman is a ball of "me, me, me" insecurity in constant need of attention, but Egon is completely at peace with his role in the group. I like to think that every time Venkman goes off on one of his jokey tangents, Egon's there silently certain he could match and top every silly quip of Venkman's.

Think I'm reading too much into things?  Notice how he projects authority when Louis Tully is dropped off at the station.  And later when Venkman makes the silly quip about getting the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper together, it's Egon who lets Peter know this is no laughing matter without insulting Peter for his ignorant suggestion.  Ray may be the heart of the Ghostbusters and Peter may be the ID, but Egon is the brains.  He's the true leader.

There's something odd about spending so much of a tribute to a writer-director on his acting work.  Part of this is that I don't know where to begin with his writing and directing credits.  I do recall it blew my mind as a kid when I found out the guy who played Egon was also the man who directed National Lampoon's Vacation and who co-wrote Back to School and Animal House, among many others.  Take a look at the films he contributed to as a writer and/or director:

Animal House
Back to School
Armed and Dangerous
Ghostbusters II 
Groundhog Day 
Analyze This 
Analyze That 
The Ice Harvest
Year One

A lot of classics and solid hits among those.  I wouldn't even know where to begin to talk about Groundhog Day without saying something that hasn't been said before.  In fact, as I look at those movies, my most prominent thoughts are how much his work made me laugh and how surreal it feels to realize he's gone.

It's weird to mourn the passing of someone you never met.  But then it's also unusual to note the loss of someone who seemed to still have so much living left to do.  When I was younger, the famous people who died all seemed so old.  They were ancient relics of a different time, commemorated in massively deteriorated video clips and aged celluloid moments.  Sometimes it was shocking to realize that they hadn't already been dead for years.  But still, death was something that came for people my parents grew up watching - the Little Rascals, the Three Stooges, and so on.

It's too soon for my generation to start losing the Ghostbusters.  I'm not ready to watch those movies and regret that a reunion of my childhood's Fab Four is impossible. Over the last couple of days, we've been mourning Harold Ramis on blogs and on Twitter, but it's not just him we're grieving for.  His passing marks the death of a little bit of our childhoods. 69 is far too young an age to leave this world.

By all accounts, Mr. Ramis was a genuinely nice guy and always pleasant to be around.  My condolences to his family and those who knew him.  We can only hope that the door swings both ways.

Also check out Scott Myers' excellent tribute post over on Go Into The Story.


  1. Very true, and some really valid and remarkable insights into Egon's character.

    All I know to say is: well fucking done.

  2. I can hear of a hundred celebrities that pass away and think nothing of it. But there are those icons that have actually helped to form who you are that really hurt when they move on. I remember it was difficult to hold in the tears when John Candy made an early exit. Sad, but each day that ticks for me is another that ticks for the folks that created my childhood.

  3. All I wanna do is write something as remotely good as "Groundhog Day." Or "Ghostbusters." Or "Analyze This." Or...

  4. Please also know that a young camera assistant lost her life working on the Greg Allman biopic in Georgia due to the negligence of the producers. Please support IATSE 600 as we try to get Sarah Jones name added to this Sunday's "In Memorium" segment. Please go to "Slates for Sarah" on FB and find out more. We need support from WGAW, SAG and DGA members----no crew member should lose their life while working on a movie. Thank you....

  5. Bravo, Sir - a truly great and hearfelt tribute.

    I think you summed up exactly what our generation thinks right now.

    RIP, Mr Ramis, you made me laugh a lot. God bless.

  6. Listening to the commentary for Ghostbusters, you'll hear how Aykroyd's script was all over the place. It was set in the future, and there were at least four ghosts the size of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man. Ramis came in and made it more grounded, more accessible. It's the kind of screenwriter we should all hope to become.

  7. "Somehow because of my own need for structure, I naturally wanted to help everyone else structure what they were doing and it seemed to help. Then I’d wonder what I was going to do,” he told me. Great comedy talent plus unselfishness - a rare combination.

  8. GHOSTBUSTERS II also had lots of gems.
    Ray: You mean you never even had a Slinky?
    Egon: We had part of a Slinky. But I straightened it.