Harold Ramis: A Cinderella Story

I find myself more saddened than I expected over the news today that Harold Ramis died. I only knew him for a few months in the summer of 1979, when I was eighteen years old and following him around with a clipboard, wearing his viewfinder on a lanyard around my neck.

I was home in Ft. Lauderdale for the summer after my freshman year as an art student at the University of Florida. As it happened, family friend, neighbor and production manager Ted Swanson gave me a call to see if I was “still doing that art thing at college” and was I interested in working on a movie? I was then hired by Harold (after a memorably hilarious job interview that included writers Doug Kenney and Brian Doyle Murray) as the storyboard and sketch artist on Caddyshack, filmed in Davie, FL.

Star Wars had been out for two years by then, and there was a wealth of available behind-the-scenes information about art departments and production design that I’d been following. I desperately wanted to work in the field. I was already a regular subscriber to Cinefantastique magazine and was targeting the film business as an art career by then. Knowing what storyboarding was and essentially how it was done, I told Harold after the interview that I was worried that I’d never actually storyboarded a film before. He grinned and told me, “That’s cool. I’ve never actually directed a film before, so why don’t we figure it out together?”

Most of the first part of June was spent location scouting with Harold, the writers and the rest of the directorial team; taking Polaroids and then drafting floor plans and camera-angle set diagrams. There was a lot of driving around in crew vans (I learned a lot of Teamster jokes…) and eating lunches at tony Palm Beach and Coconut Grove restaurants because the producers were riding with us.

Once pre-production was in full swing, I had to do a set of full-color “vanity” boards, essentially turning the entire script into a comic book for that asshole, Jon Peters (the illiterate executive producer) to look at on the wall of his LA office. Peters never spoke to me directly; only through a staff member while I was standing right there, as in: “tell the girl…” It was so insulting, but also pathetically comical. Peters was a walking caricature of a movie producer. Whenever he got on a plane back to LA, we’d all heave a sigh of relief. And Harold would put me back to work on the real storyboards for the stunt and boating scenes that both he and the director of photography could use.

During that time I occasionally babysat Harold’s daughter, Violet, still in her stroller, when his first wife Anne would visit the set at Rolling Hills golf course. I never minded, of course. Not only was Violet lovely but it gave me a needed break and a chance to sit outside on the set with the rest of the crew, including my mother Shirley, who was the set’s registered nurse and first aid. Days on the set were twelve hours long or more, and I spent most of the time cooped up in my office while drawing in the golf course’s tiny hotel where the production company was headquartered.

Harold knew I was serious about a storyboarding career and taught me a very great deal about script organization; I would go on to do only four more features and some television after Caddyshack but he was really the only teacher I ever had in the business. I was there for most of the shooting but my fall classes were starting just before Murray and Chase came to town to shoot the last scenes on the schedule. Harold and Doug took the time to come up to the office to see me off when I left for school, and that’s a rare and unlooked for courtesy on a movie set for such a junior crew member. I like to think some of Harold’s (and Doug’s and Brian Doyle Murray’s) snark and sense of humor rubbed off on me at an impressionable age.

To this day, I remember Harold as a real gentleman; one of the kindest, smartest, most genial people I’ve been honored to meet. He was perfectly professional. He treated an inexperienced college kid on a notoriously wild set with patience, respect, and warmth, and he stood up for me against Jon Peters’ bullying. I was never in contact with him again; I wish now that I’d had the opportunity to tell him this.

Rest in peace, Harold. I’ll never forget the summer of Caddyshack, and I’ll never forget you.