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Groundhog Day is one of the best movies of the last 25 years. There’s simply no debating this fact. It’s ingeniously plotted, deliciously sweet and bitingly funny. And it only manages to reach these heights thanks to the nuanced yet commanding comedic presence of its lead actor, Bill Murray, as well as the subtle-yet-suave prowess of director Harold Ramis.
Of course, at the time, it was no surprise that the duo had once again delivered another rousing cinematic adventure that challenged the Hollywood elite in its own unerring fashion. But this would be the last collaboration between Ramis and Murray, as its shoot was clouded in so much mire and ill will that their friendship deteriorated completely. But what happened between the cinematic brethren on-set that ruined their previously fruitful companionship?
Well, in order to get a true grip of the story, let’s go back to the start – to when the duo first became chums. Having met at Chicago’s Second City, the infamous improvisational sketch comedy troupe, the two Illinois natives managed to bypass career-altering LSD trips and drug arrests via Saturday Night Live and SCTV to become two of American cinema’s most popular personalities of the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1993, they made six hugely successful pictures together, all of which, in their own inimitable way, have stood the test of time. Elements of Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II and, especially, Groundhog Day can still be seen in Hollywood flicks to this day. But what can’t be replicated is the camaraderie and patter that developed between Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, both behind and in-front of the camera.
In a fascinating study of the duo's relationship, Uproxx reports that after making Caddyshack, Ramis said:
In comedy, we’re out there alone, and it turns out I don’t want to work alone – Bill was a tremendous source of strength and protection. If a scene didn’t work, I’d just say, ‘O.K., let’s start lighting,’ and Bill and I would talk for half an hour, and we’d get something great."
Then came Groundhog Day. Danny Rubin, who originally wrote the script, recalled how when Ramis started scribing his draft of the film, he immediately and instinctively played up to Murray’s strengths in order to get his old pal to play the lead. It worked, and Murray accepted, but he was experiencing incredible strife in his life at the time of filming and his behaviour on-set became more and more problematic. Not only did he fail to turn up on time, but he would throw tantrums, argue with Ramis over his directorial choices, and insist that the film be more moody and provocative than the straight-forward comedy Ramis desired. Ramis and Murray couldn’t even work on the script together alone, and the filmmaker resorted to sending Rubin to try and improve on the screenplay with the actor. Then when Ramis tried to call to hear about their efforts, Murray would simply ignore him.
Despite these issues, Groundhog Day was another huge hit for the duo, and ironically it managed to embrace both Ramis and Murray’s ideas, which combined perfectly to create a truly original cinematic tale. But this success didn’t eradicate their conflict, and Murray refused to ever work with Ramis again. Friends of the pair have since speculated that this was because Murray had grown tired of the idea that Ramis was responsible for his career. They didn’t speak to each other for 21 years.
During this time, Murray refused to discuss his former chum, while Ramis insisted that he’d repeatedly had dreams about the pair becoming friends again. When Ramis’ health started to plummet due to Autoimmune Inflammatory Vasulitis disease, his dream became finally became a reality. Brian Doyle Murray convinced his brother to visit the legendary filmmaker on his deathbed. The two chatted. About what we’ll never know. But when Ramis finally succumbed to his illness in February earlier this year, Murray sent out a solemn yet perfectly concise tribute that simply read: "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." He then added a heart-warming eulogy at the Academy Awards just a few weeks later:
But it’s Harold Ramis’ comments about himself and Murray, which he made shortly before he died, that truly sum up their escapades:
I could help him be the best funny Bill Murray he could be, and I think he appreciated that then. And I don’t know where that went, but it’s there on film. So whatever happens between us in the future, at least we have those expressions."
Forget about their private lives. That’s their business. Let’s just remember them together as the comedic heavyweights that they are, and always be. Now go watch Groundhog Day again to see them at their best.