Bill Murray and Harold Ramis Were the Best of Friends. Then ‘Groundhog Day’ Happened
At the Academy Awards in 2014, Amy Adams and Bill Murray presented the prize for Best Cinematography. The Oscars have had their share of infamous moments in recent years — the Moonlight/La La Land Best Picture debacle, The Slap — and nothing that Murray did on stage that night came close in terms of scandal. But after the nominees were listed, the comic legend went off script, adding, “Oh, we forgot one: Harold Ramis for Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.” It was a surprise but not exactly controversial: Ramis had died just a week earlier, and Adams clapped and the crowd roared its approval. Still, Murray said sheepishly, “Please forgive me, gentlemen” to the actual nominees before announcing the winner.
For most people watching at home, it seemed like a sweet gesture from an actor to one of his oldest collaborators. Ramis, who passed away at the age of 69, had worked with Murray for decades, in the process giving the world some all-time classic comedies. But there was more to Murray’s ad-lib than that — in fact, it was something of a public acknowledgement of a friendship that had soured and, at the last moment, had finally been repaired. Murray wasn’t just paying tribute. In a sense, maybe he was also saying he was sorry.
They had met in 1969. Ramis was living in Chicago, part of the legendary Second City, where he palled around with Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s older brother. “At that time, Bill had just finished high school and was operating the refreshment stand at a country club in Wilmette, Illinois,” Ramis would joke later. “But in less than three years he had advanced to selling hot chestnuts in front of a supermarket in Chicago’s Old Town.”
Murray and Ramis became friends when Murray joined Second City, although their comic energies were different. As comedian Joe Flaherty, who was also part of the troupe, once put it, “Harold certainly was the brain of the group. Very funny. Witty. Although he always claimed that he wasn’t an actor, that he was just basically a head, a brain, walking around onstage.” Ramis’ instinct was to be more deadpan, letting someone like Murray or John Belushi be outrageous. Even early on, people around Murray understood that he could be temperamental. “A lot of people in acting have strong egos. And they’re driven. But Bill, he had a bad temper,” Flaherty said. “I mean, he wasn’t that volatile. It wasn’t like this happened a lot. But it would. He’d get into scuffles with his castmates and stuff like that. None of that stuff was ever very serious, but you gave Bill a wide berth as far as getting him upset. He liked to mix it up.”
It was Ramis’ job to talk Murray down. “It’s like working with Vincent van Gogh — on a bad day,” Ramis said in Gavin Edwards’ book The Tao of Bill Murray. “He hates the Strasberg Method and won’t really prepare in the classical manner, so he is forced to rely pretty much on inspiration, wit, instinct and impulse. When it works for him, it’s truly magical. But there are times when he really has to dig for it, to mine his deepest energy reserves to come up with something good.”
Eventually, the two went off to become part of the two most important comedy institutions of the late 1970s, Ramis going to SCTV and Murray heading to Saturday Night Live. Murray’s charisma was apparent for all of America to see once he was on SNL, but he knew he couldn’t stay on the show forever. And then the question was what to do next. “None of us wanted any TV jobs, because we’d had the best TV jobs there were,” Murray said in the SNL oral history Live From New York. “Once you saw what the other jobs were like, you knew they were not half as much fun as Saturday Night Live. … So nobody wanted regular TV or prime time. We’d all made more money than we needed in the short term, so we just went out there and got into the movie business.”
Murray’s first big film was 1979’s Meatballs, which ended up being co-written by Ramis, who’d had mammoth success a year earlier as one of the writers of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which had been based in part on Ramis’ college fraternity experiences. Ivan Reitman, who produced Animal House, directed Meatballs and brought Ramis on board. “He wanted Bill in the movie,” Ramis recalled, “and he knew Bill and I had a good relationship, so he asked me to doctor the script. Bill left Ivan hanging, though. Ivan didn’t know if he was going to be there until the day they started shooting.”
This hadn’t surprised Ramis — he’d seen it from Murray back in Chicago. “He was 18 when I met him, and he was already that way,” said Ramis. “He’d been strong enough at 16 to defy all the Jesuit priests teaching at Loyola Academy. He was just the biggest rebel in the world. It’s his job to defy all your expectations.” And as camp counselor Tripper, Murray found his sarcastic voice that would make him a movie star. “He was funny and bold and said things no one else would say,” Ramis said. “The prevailing Woody Allen–type heroes at the time were losers, nebbishes, schlemiels. Bill’s character wasn’t a loser; he was a rebel. He was an outcast by choice. He had confidence and power.”
The collaboration between the two continued, with Ramis making his feature directorial debut on Caddyshack, which he co-wrote with National Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney and Doyle-Murray. That slobs-versus-snobs comedy further cemented Murray’s on-screen persona, the actor playing quirky groundskeeper Carl Spackler, the film’s oddball comic relief. Caddyshack was also a hit, and in subsequent years he and Ramis would keep working together in different capacities.
Others quickly realized they were a winning combination. In a 2004 New Yorker profile of Ramis, Reitman told a story about wanting Murray for his military comedy Stripes, and deducing that the trick to landing him would be hiring his buddy. “I thought, ‘Harold is my secret weapon,’” Reitman said. “Bill is this great improv player, but he needs Harold, the focused composer who understands setting a theme and the rules of orchestration. So I told Harold, ‘One, I want you to costar in my movie, and, two, I want you to rewrite it for two really intelligent guys — you and Bill.’” After Stripes, the three of them went on to make Ghostbusters — another Ramis co-write — which became one of the 1980s’ defining action-comedy blockbusters. Fittingly, Murray played the snarky clown, while Ramis was the cool intellectual. The roles were tailor-made for each man’s comedic strengths.
Ramis focused on other projects — directing Club Paradise, working on the scripts for Back to School and Caddyshack II — while Murray starred in films like Scrooged and What About Bob? But they reunited for 1993’s Groundhog Day, from a script by Danny Rubin, who imagined a fantastical scenario in which a cynical weatherman named Phil is forced to relive the same day again and again. Ramis responded to the questions that such a high-concept premise inspired about enlightenment and redemption, and Murray was cast to play Phil.
But when the film got underway, problems developed between the two, which have been well-documented in the 30 years since Groundhog Day came out. Murray’s marriage was collapsing. Ramis was getting sick of his star’s late-night calls about changes to the script. (Also, Murray was supposedly annoyed that Ramis sent Rubin to talk to Murray about the screenplay rather than discussing it with him directly.) There were reports that it got so bad during filming that Ramis slammed Murray up against a wall at one point.
“They were like two brothers who weren’t getting along,” Rubin told The New Yorker. “And they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about — Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy.” In the same profile, Ramis lamented, “At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set. What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’”
Groundhog Day wasn’t exactly a box-office dynamo when it came out on February 12, 1993, but it did well and got great reviews — and over time, it became heralded as a comedy landmark. Filmmakers like David O. Russell and Jay Roach have declared Groundhog Day to be among their all-time favorite films. It’s not just a perennial favorite on its namesake holiday: The very idea of being stuck in a rut has become synonymous with Groundhog Day, with people during the worst of the pandemic referencing the film as a metaphor for their present reality. (“I feel that,” Murray said in 2022 about that COVID phenomenon. “I hear that from people — that they can’t believe that this day goes on over and over again and it’s the same day where you’re left to your own devices to create life out of limited conditions.”) Movies as different as Memento, 50 First Dates, Edge of Tomorrow and Palm Springs have all been compared to Groundhog Day, a testament to the fact that the film practically created its own subgenre.
Murray and Ramis celebrated their achievement by not speaking to each other for decades. Tad Friend, who wrote the New Yorker profile of Ramis, tried to get Murray to go on the record to discuss the falling-out. After finally getting a hold of Murray — the actor is notorious for being hard to reach — Friend was told to try him back in a week. When Friend called a week later, Murray responded, “I’ve thought about it, and I really don’t have anything to say.”
Was the icy silence simply because of a bad working relationship on Groundhog Day? Friend’s profile included quotes from people who knew both men, hinting that perhaps Murray was annoyed that Ramis got so much credit for Murray’s career and success. But Murray wouldn’t talk, and Ramis didn’t have any answers. In 2009, Ramis was asked by the A.V. Club about his estranged friend. “We have no social relationship whatsoever, he replied, later adding, ”I’m the only one who talks about (our relationship). He won’t tell you.”
Ramis paused, then continued. “He’s a very private person. He doesn’t do serious interviews. Once in a while, but he’s not self-revealing. The most self-revealing thing I ever saw was never in the press or publicity, it was in Lost In Translation or Rushmore.” Ramis laughed, adding, “Those movies kind of defined a side of him the public is not aware of. I think if you looked at his career, he got tired of being the crazy, life-of-the-party guy. That’s quite a load to carry, and he carried it a bunch of times so successfully, and he just didn’t want to do it anymore, and started exploring this more adult, serious side of himself. That’s fine, I’d admired and respected it, and like his work in those films. I just had so little social contact with him that I don’t have any perspective on anything he does, thinks or feels, and he gives no clues.”
That same year, Ramis also did an interview with GQ, where Murray was brought up as well. “The fact that he’s cut off contact with you seems heartbreaking,” writer Brett Martin said. “It’s a little heartbreaking to me,” Ramis responded. “I don’t know that he’s heartbroken.” Asked to explain what happened, Ramis could only offer, “I don’t know. You know, ask anyone in Hollywood. Everybody has a Bill Murray story. He just punishes people, for reasons they can’t figure out. … If he perceived someone as being too self-important or corrupt in some way that he couldn’t stomach, it was his job to straighten them out.” Did Ramis suspect that Murray thought that he was corrupt? “I have no clue. And because it’s unstated, it sends me to my worst fears: ‘Did he think I was weak? Or untrue? Did I betray him in some way?’ With no clue or feedback from him, it’s this kind of tantalizing mystery. And that may be the point.”
Even those who had worked with both men couldn’t quite explain the impasse. “I couldn’t tell you what the issue was with Harold,” Reitman once said. “I’ve asked Bill about it. He never could articulate it to me.”
As the feud lingered and Murray kept mum, it was hard not to take Ramis’ side. To be clear, Ramis was hardly a saint himself. But for years, Murray has enjoyed an elevated, seemingly bulletproof status as a beloved comedy icon — everybody’s endearing uncle who does wacky things in public — although in recent times, stories have come out about his less-appealing behavior, suggesting that his combative personality didn’t diminish over time. (Geena Davis’ accusations of harassment during the making of Quick Change are especially upsetting.) Where he once seemed amusingly cantankerous, now he just comes across as a bit of a moody nightmare — which, of course, is the Bill Murray whom Ramis grew up with.
In the last years of his life, Ramis was ill, suffering from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. In her book Ghostbuster’s Daughter, his daughter Violet Ramis Stiel recalled what it was like to see her father slip away. “(T)here were times he would get confused and frustrated and paranoid,” she wrote, “calling me late at night and demanding to know what was really going on. … His hearing was shot, his voice was softer, his speech was slower than it had been, and his short-term memory was shit. Because of the area of his brain that had been affected by the hemorrhage controlled creative function, he lacked judgment and the ability to initiate. Still, he was essentially himself.”
It was during those final days that Murray finally broke his silence. As Stiel writes, “In classic Bill fashion, he showed up at the house, unannounced, at 7 a.m., with a police escort and a dozen doughnuts. My dad wasn’t able to talk much by that point, so they didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of what happened or go back and rehash any of the old stuff, but they spent a couple hours together, laughed a little and made their peace.”
Not long after, Ramis died. And then Murray walked on stage at the Dolby Theatre during the 86th Academy Awards and paid tribute to his buddy.
The last time Murray and Ramis were on screen together was a poignant, strange affair. It was 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the ghastly sequel that introduced new characters while bringing back the original cast — including the late Ramis, who was digitally inserted into the film. It’s a fairly brief reunion — Ramis’ character Egon is now a ghost — but it was also a bittersweet reminder of the two actors’ feud, which got resolved in the nick of time.
When Ramis died, the media-shy Murray sent out a simple statement: “Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.” And when Groundhog Day got turned into a musical, Murray went to the show, saying afterward of a film that he’d had mixed feelings about, “The idea that we just have to try again. We just have to try again. It’s such a beautiful, powerful idea.”
With another Groundhog Day upon us, it’s comforting to think that maybe Murray took a lesson from the movie when he decided to mend fences with Ramis. In Groundhog Day, Phil can’t escape his time loop until he changes his ways. Thankfully, Murray didn’t wait too long to do the same with his friend.