Monday, February 24, 2014

Harold Ramis, One of the Good Guys


I was very sorry to hear of Harold Ramis' death today.  He was one of my favorites on SCTV in the '70's.  Watching that show as an 8th grade super 8 filmmaker, I never dreamt I would one day get to work with Moe Green himself.

Thirteen years later, Tom Wilhite at Hyperion Animtion hired me to direct the feature Rover Dangerfield.  I was only 26, and had more hubris than experience.  It was Rodney Dangerfield's baby, and he got Harold Ramis to write a script.  It wasn't a horrible first draft, though Harold did not put his name on it.  With story artist Rebecca Rees, who was pregnant with her son Ian,  we started working to improve the script.

I had a meeting with Rodney in his suite at the Beverly Hilton.  Just me and him.  He started to read the script aloud - a 120 page script.  He would read a little, stop and talk about it, then read some more.  Feeling trapped, I tried to talk about some of the broad strokes changes I wanted to make, as if the 69 year-old comedy genius gave a firm crap about the story ideas of a 26 year old kid.  "I thought you liked the script."  Rodney kept saying.  I backpedalled like Ralph Kramden, "Hamina hamina hamina…."  Not only was this not a first draft for him, it was the shooting script.

As soon as I got home, Tom Wilhite called.  "What did you say to Rodney?"  he asked.

"He's freaking out about making changes."  I said.

"Can you make the movie with the script as-is?" He said.

After a long pause, I conceded, "I could.  It would be crap."

Tom got Harold to meet with Rebecca and I at his office and talk about our story notes.  It was the polar opposite experience from my meeting with Rodney.  Harold was very laid back and respectful of the kid and the 8 month pregnant story artist.  He listened to our ideas and improved on the ones he liked and told us why the ones he did not like were not good.

"In a comedy," he said, "you either want a funny character in a straight world, or a straight character in a crazy world.  If everyone's being funny it won't work."

I left that meeting feeling vindicated.  Harold was going to do a rewrite and the picture would get on the right track.   Soon afterward, we had a meeting with Rodney - in his hospital room.  He was in for something minor, and flirting with all the nurses.  An orderly stopped by and tossed him a pack of cigarettes, which he promptly hid.  In good spirits, he now seemed onboard with story changes now that Harold was involved.
Still in my Rolodex.  Yes, I still use a Rolodex.
A few days later, Tom Wilhite called again.  "Rodney wants a new director." he said.

Apparently, after his meds wore off, Rodney realized we here changing the script.  My heart sank.  My big break.  I had hired people away from other jobs.   I had just bought a townhouse. Now I was fired.

I called Rodney.  This time, HE hemmed and hawed, preferring Tom do the dirty work.  I tried my best, but his mind was set.  "I'm sorry, Steve."  he said.

My next call was to Harold.  He was not surprised by Rodney's move, and offered a level headed understanding of the situation.  "You probably came on too strong." he said. "You'll get other chances. Just chalk it up to experience."  It was like I had been forgiven, a large weight lifted off my shoulders.

Rodney later felt guilty and let me stay on the film, and I, in turn, had to suck up a demotion.  I had many, many more meetings with Rodney, but not Harold.  He was done with the project.  I'm sorry I never got to work with him again.  He was one of the good guys.

And condolences to Alex Mann, Harold's brother-in-law and excellent story artist.


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