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Harold Ramis left imprint on Fox Valley, North Shore — and one local critic

Actor director Harold Ramis walks Red Carpet as he arrives celebrate The Second City's 50th anniversary Chicago 2009. Ramis died

Actor and director Harold Ramis walks the Red Carpet as he arrives to celebrate The Second City's 50th anniversary in Chicago in 2009. Ramis died Monday. | AP file photo

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Updated: March 27, 2014 6:16AM

One thing everybody wants to know from a movie critic/entertainment reporter is: “What is so-and-so famous person really like off-screen?”

After some exposure to the stars while writing movie reviews for The Courier-News and Beacon-News for more than two decades, and serving as an officer of the Chicago Film Critics Association, I could tell you that Tom Hanks seems effortlessly funny and generous, a guy you’d like to have as your best friend.

That Kathy Bates seems as down-to-earth and modest as a next-door neighbor coming over to borrow a snow shovel.

That Kevin Spacey is actually a brilliant impressionist who could put Rich Little to shame.

If you want dirt, that Shelley Long seemed full of herself and not very bright, while Nicolas Cage seemed shallow and New Age-y.

But it you had ever asked me about Harold Ramis, who died Monday at 69, I would have said, “Apparently, the nicest guy in show biz.”

After growing up in Chicago and sharpening his comedy chops at the Second City improv house, Ramis went on to direct and/or write and/or star in many of the most successful comedy films of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s: “Animal House.” “Caddyshack.” “Stripes.” “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” “Groundhog Day.”

Who can match such a list in the field of funniness? These aren’t just movies that make you think, “Oh, yeah, I can remember seeing that 30 years ago and laughing a lot.” These are movies you still hear somebody referring to or even quoting lines from maybe once a month. Movies that likely will live forever.

Yet this guy who looked like a smiling Jewish teddy bear retained his Midwestern “nice”-ness and family values. After he married his second wife and she gave birth to two sons in the early ’90s, he moved his family and his production company back to the Chicago area. They settled in Highland Park.

That might have handicapped his ability to network with the top crust in the movie industry. But it was more important, he told people, to raise his kids in the sanity of suburban Chicago rather than exposing them to the real-life animal house that characterized Los Angeles.

Four memories — all of them set in the nighttime — stand out from my interactions with Ramis:

Driving to Woodstock’s town square one night in 1992 to watch him direct Bill Murray in a scene for the classic “Groundhog Day.” They were shooting in an alley on a cold winter night. I think it was the scene where Murray’s character finds a homeless man dying.

As our crowd of rubber-neckers stomped our freezing feet and tried to hear or see what was going on, all we could see for two hours was the camera man’s butt and Ramis’ back at the entrance to the alley. But at last Murray and Ramis came out and kidded around with the crowd, giving us a brush with Hollywood.

I recently saw “Groundhog Day” again. Seeing it over and over, it just keeps getting better — such as the cynical, grouchy man played by Murray as that character is forced to relive the same day of his life over and over until he gets it right. Until he becomes a nice guy, more like director-writer Ramis.

Even closer to home, in about the summer of 2004, a crowd watched Ramis film a scene with John Cusack on Carpentersville’s Main Street Bridge for the brutal, deservedly forgotten gangster drama “Ice Harvest.” Again it was a night scene. Again it was cold — this time because of a driving rain.

By now, Ramis was hungry to move beyond his reputation as “just” a comedy maker and to do some gritty dramas. But when you’ve done “Groundhog Day,” “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes,” why?

I knew that his production company’s headquarters was in downtown Highland Park. So one night, after I had journeyed the 45 miles to see a limited-release movie at the Highland Park Theatre, I satisfied my voyeuristic curiosity by looking up that address.

It turned out to be right across the street from the theater, with a little brass plaque on the door — but nobody in the office. He was probably back home with those kids.

Most of all, I remember meeting him in person at several of the annual Chicago Film Critics Awards and at the first Chicago screening of “Harry Potter,” at the McClurg Court Theater.

As a giant crowd of kids, parents (and a few movie critics) waited for their favorite fantasy book to pop onto the movie screen, Ramis sat right in front of my wife Patty and me. Flanked by his wife and two grade-school-age sons, he looked more like one of the other dads attending than like one of the Hollywood sorts. But people began to recognize him. What a warm, friendly fellow he was, happily mixing with young and old fans all around, answering questions, signing autographs.

I can assure you that is not the manner of all movie stars and big-time directors one runs into out in public. For example, the only Chicago-based director who arguably was more successful than Ramis — teen-flick master John Hughes — became virtually a hermit in his last two decades. I was able to buttonhole Hughes and talk to him one-on-one for 15 or 20 minutes at the reception following one Chicago Film Critics Awards. Then he left me with a promise that we could arrange a more complete interview after he finished producing a new comedy he had written. Something named “Home Alone.”

But after that, Hughes never gave press interviews. He allowed only family and close friends to penetrate his hangouts on a Harvard-area horse farm and a Lake Forest mansion.

Yet Hughes’ seclusion was motivated, his friends say, by the same Midwestern values that made Harold Ramis tick — a yen to protect family, the fear of spending too much time and effort on Tinseltown values and too little on friends and kids. And then Hughes died of an unexpected heart attack.

First John Hughes gone, and now Harold Ramis. Chicago’s great pop moviemakers are disappearing. And they will be sorely missed.

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