The movie was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” The theater was Century 12 Evanston. The man sitting behind me was Harold Ramis, though I was initially unaware of his presence. I had just entered the theater after a pre-movie pitstop in the men’s room, and sat down without having the slightest clue that my family had already introduced themselves to Mr. Ramis, chatted with him and his two sons, and informed him that I was currently a film major enrolled at Columbia College. Suddenly, a voice harboring more than a faint trace of Egon slyly asked, “Is there a film major somewhere in this theater?”
I turned my head and saw before me a face so brimming with warmth and gaiety that it would’ve melted the heart of the most venomous cynic. Resembling the whimsical hybrid of a rabbi and a teddy bear, Ramis happily indulged in several minutes of small talk with me, as I maintained a cool head, having had a few previous experiences rubbing shoulders with famous faces in the Windy City. Yet inside, I was jumping up and down with joy. I never mentioned to him that my family had made a point of watching his 1993 classic “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray as nasty weatherman Phil Conners, who suddenly finds himself stuck in a time loop, every year on February 2nd. Or that I grew up in the town right next to Woodstock, Illinois, where his film was shot. Or that my family accidentally walked onto the set during filming, prompting a policeman to shout, “Hey!” and everyone in the cast and crew to temporarily thrust their heads in our direction for one mortifying moment. Or how I, as a teenager, accidentally hydroplaned on an icy road into the car of a man who turned out to be the body double for Chris Elliott’s character in “Groundhog Day,” resulting in us having a jovial conversation as we waited for the police to arrive.
I assumed these were the sort of stories Ramis had heard over and over again, and I had no intention of channeling Ned Ryerson, the infamous vexation uproariously played in the film by Stephen Tobolowsky. Instead I asked him about his new movie, “The Ice Harvest,” and whether he had any plans of making a film in Chicago in the near future (I was secretly hoping I would end up onset as a production assistant). Once the film began, all I could think of was the extraordinary person seated behind me. Every once in a while, I’d hear him ask his kids, “Would you like a taste of popcorn?” Five years later, I interviewed Ramis one-on-one at The Shops at North Bridge on Michigan Avenue, and recalled our initial encounter. I told him about how much I loved the character-driven nature of his comedies, particularly “Ghostbusters,” and how he never allowed special effects to overtake the wit or humanity of his scripts. I also voiced my admiration for the ways in which he attempted to grapple with spiritual and philosophical issues within his deceptively straightforward satires.
His response was memorable: “The danger with all popular entertainment is that it’s trivial and forgettable, and has no real reason to be there, other than to waste your time and provide employment for a lot of people. The employment part I get, the wasting of other people’s time I don’t get. People ask me what I watch on network television, and there’s a lot of good stuff. I wouldn’t put down the quality of it, but much of it doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t see how it affects my life. I don’t see how it teaches me anything or makes me think about anything. Take a movie like ‘A Serious Man,’ for instance. I saw it twice months ago and I’m still thinking about it. The film explores huge existential issues that are really bothersome—things that we’re trying to escape from with most conventional entertainment. Those are the very things I want to think about. I heard people leaving the theater saying, ‘When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think,’ and I think, ‘Well, just shoot yourself in the head!’ I was at ‘The Long Red Road’ at the Goodman Theatre the other day. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed it, and it’s very bleak, very dark and tragic. At the intermission, I heard one guy say to another, ‘Well, it’s no ‘My Fair Lady.’ [laughs] Well, yeah there’s a place for ‘My Fair Lady,’ but there’s a place for this too.”
When Harold succumbed at age 69 to complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis on February 24th, 2014, I immediately flashed back to these few fleeting moments I was honored and fortunate enough to have spent in the presence of this great and tender man, as friendly and generous as anyone I had ever met. While covering the Reykjavík International Film Festival in 2018, I met a wonderful photographer from Poland, Joanna Kedzierska, who cited “Groundhog Day” as one of her very favorite films. “It is a very popular film in Poland and is shown often on television,” she recently told me. “When I was a child, I saw it simply as a very funny and heartwarming rom-com. It was only years later that I realized how there was so much more meaning between the words. It has many layers and asks really interesting questions about life that help us break out of our own daily routines. The sarcastic humor of Bill’s arrogant character stems from the fact that he is unhappy inside. As in Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse,’ time repeats itself in circles, in this case because Phil is in a limbo or purgatory where he has to suffer a lot before he achieves nirvana, which comes as a result of him learning how to be kind to people.”
“Groundhog Day” achieved a whole new resonance during the COVID-19 quarantine, as mankind collectively felt as if it were living the same day over and over, while our efforts to better ourselves and be thoughtful to one another literally resulted in lives being saved. Just prior to the 2020 lockdown, Bill Murray returned to Woodstock to film a Super Bowl commercial in which he reprised his role as Phil. By then, my parents had moved to Woodstock, and I was having brunch with my father at a cafe on the Square when Bill and his brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who played the mayor of Punxsutawney in “Groundhog Day,” broke for lunch and entered the restaurant in full costume, sitting at a table just behind our booth. When I finally mustered up the courage to approach them, I took the opportunity to say how moved I was not only by this tribute, but for the moment at the 2014 Oscars when Bill went off-script after listing the nominees in a particular category and said, “Oh, we forgot one. Harold Ramis for ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Groundhog Day.’” Appearing grateful that I hadn’t asked for a selfie, Bill looked at me and replied, “Thanks man.”
When Roger Ebert inducted “Groundhog Day” into his Great Movies series in 2005, he admitted that he underrated the film in his original review. “I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation,” Ebert wrote. “But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like ‘Groundhog Day’ to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.” The profound nature of the film’s cultural impact can be observed all over the globe. It was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry, was remade in Italy as “Stork Day” and inspired countless other cinematic works, was adapted into a Broadway musical and is annually celebrated in Woodstock during its Groundhog Days festival, which rivals the original one that takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the titular rodent informs the shivering townspeople whether or not it has seen its shadow, thus predicting how soon Spring will arrive. The great irony is that, while Phil eventually escaped his own time loop, the Woodstock Square has essentially remained frozen in 1992 ever since production wrapped.
Like “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Groundhog Day” is a film we annually return to in order to reaffirm our purpose in life. I suppose it was inevitable that Rebecca, the woman I fell in love with, also turned out to be an avid fan of the film. In December of 2020, I proposed to her in the gazebo on the Woodstock Square where Bill Murray danced with Andie MacDowell, who plays Rita, the producer whom Phil desires to one day be worthy of, thus initially triggering his journey toward self-improvement. Rebecca and I were married in Woodstock in July of 2022, and spent our wedding night at the Cherry Tree Inn, where Phil slept. A disc of “Groundhog Day” is preemptively placed in each of the room’s DVD players, and I decided to have its final scene cued up so that I could surprise Rebecca with it when we awoke the following morning. “Do you know what today is?” Phil exclaims to Rita. “No what?” she asks, to which he replies, “Today is tomorrow. It happened.”
This Friday, February 2nd, “Groundhog Day” fans in Chicago are in for a serious treat. Members of the film’s cast will have their first official reunion to honor the tenth anniversary of Harold’s passing at 3pm CT at Harry Caray’s Tavern, 700 E. Grand Avenue, on Navy Pier. Harold’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, will be joined by cast members including Stephen Tobolowsky and Brian Doyle-Murray at the special public event, tickets for which can be retrieved for free here. In anticipation of this celebration, I spoke with four of the participating cast members about their memories of Harold and the extraordinary legacy of the film they made with him.
1. David Pasquesi as The Psychiatrist
You have stolen scenes in everything from “Father of the Bride” to “The Book of Boba Fett,” but the hilarious scene between you and Bill Murray remains a standout. Was improvisation your way into acting as it was for Harold Ramis?
Yes, I was almost out of college when I started getting involved in improvisation and I really loved it. I came through the Chicago improv scene, and then I got my first legitimate play at the Remains Theatre while I was at Second City. As an actor, improvisation has informed everything. I got a job one time from the recently deceased and adored Mike Nussbaum. He told me that he hired me because of the way I listened in the auditions, and I do think that’s what improvisation does. It allows you to be fine listening, and I think that’s interesting to watch. You see how some people are just gone until they are talking, so it’s not a relationship between two people. It is just one person talking and then another person talking.
I first met Harold when I auditioned for “Groundhog Day,” and working with him was such a thrill. He was all three of these things to excess: funny, intelligent and kind. I don’t know anyone that has the excesses in all three of those areas like he did. Even though I had only one scene in the film, he personally walked me around and introduced me to every department head. I barely had been on a film set, and he made me feel like I belonged there. After the shoot, we worked together a few more times, and we ended up becoming friends. I would call him occasionally when I was out in Los Angeles and we would go out to lunch. I just did whatever I could to find reasons to spend time with him.
How would you describe Bill as a scene partner?
He was really great and so helpful. When the camera was on me and not on him, he was very giving in trying to provide me with reactions. He gave me tons of stuff to work with, and it was a great lesson. I learned a lot on that set about how to behave around people. The atmosphere on the set, of course, was set by Harold, and he was so inclusive. Both he and Bill made it easier for anyone to do well, and in my scene, they helped me with my character’s tentativeness and fear of Bill’s character. When I initially saw the film, I was just delighted by it like everyone else, and it’s amazing to see how it has subsequently become part of the language. “Groundhog Day” no longer means a day in February, it means the repetition of events stuck in a loop.
Harold mentioned to me that they teach the film in religion classes at universities. [laughs] I think everybody has been Phil at certain stages of their lives. A friend of mine, who was a priest, came to see me in Glengarry GlenRoss, which is about six guys, and he told me afterward, “I am every one of them.” He didn’t identify with one of them, he identified with every single one of them. At different points of his life, he has been each of them, and I do think that in “Groundhog Day,” we can relate to at least one of Phil’s phases. Like today, I happen to be in a phase of belligerent denial. That’s usually where I live. [laughs]
What do you cherish most about your time on that film?
Harold was so accessible, gracious and generous. I’ve seen other people creating that sort of environment onset, but not to the extent that he did. It has helped me on subsequent projects when I’ve shot my own stuff, or even as an actor on a show when the guest is coming in. I do everything I can to make them feel welcome because then it allows them to do better work. It’s better for everyone if you are kind. I knew Bill and Brian a little bit before “Groundhog Day” because I came up with their brother, Joel, and I’m such a huge fan of Brian Doyle-Murray. We later got to work on a show called “Lodge 49,” and I have a memory of watching him in a little cabaret in Chicago, Crosscurrents, when we were working with Del Close.
Brian came in with Bill and a bunch of other movie stars like Sydney Pollack, and we were showing them a long form improvisation that they did with us. I remember sitting there in the audience while Brian did a scene with a woman, and he just sat there. He wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t being funny—he maybe buttoned an imaginary cardigan sweater as he sat on a porch—but it was so engaging and he was so sweet in the scene. I thought, ‘Oh, improvisation can be like that too.’ Not only is he an excellent actor, he co-wrote with Harold one of my all-time favorite films, “Caddyshack,” and he is also a really generous, kind person as well. As I’m talking to you, I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess these are qualities I admire in people. Maybe I should attempt those myself.’ [laughs]
2. Robin Duke as Doris the Waitress
You and Harold Ramis were on “SCTV” at separate times alongside your future “Schitt’s Creek” co-stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. What was your experience like on that show?
Oh it was great! It was a very creative environment and I remember there was no network telling you what you could and could not do. I started at Second City, but the improv that we did in those days aimed to create scenes that you could perform in the main show, for which there were two kinds of philosophies. In the school of Del Close, the improvisation is the product, whereas I am from the school of Bernie Sahlins, where the scene is the product and there’s a lot of acting required. You’re doing characters that reflect your emotions, feelings and life experience. Sheldon Patinkin was my acting teacher at Second City, whereas a lot of the other teachers were more about teaching the games that help you write scenes on your feet in front of an audience.
And it all has to come from a foundation of truth.
You are absolutely right. The truth is what you are searching for when you are acting, and I know that Harold’s school is built around that style of improvising to create scenes. He was always open to people improvising and he liked to work with Second City people because he knew that they were able to improvise around an idea within the confines of what had been established. As I was growing up, I always wanted to be a waitress. I’d look up at those women like they were queens, so when I got to play Doris in “Groundhog Day,” it was my dream come true. I wanted her to be a country and western wannabe, so I listened to Reba McEntire before we’d shoot.
Bill was very kind to me on the set, and I think he liked that I had a history with Second City. When we were shooting the scenes in the restaurant, he took my shoulders and physically turned me toward the camera. He said to me afterwards, “I did that so you wouldn’t be edited out.” I couldn’t believe how generous that was. Bill would do many different takes, and his approach would be so different in each of them. It would be a different level of energy or pacing or timing or emotion. He would do about seven, and then in the last one, he would nail it, but he was pulling from all of them to come up with that final take. It was so interesting to watch, and he had the license to do that because of Harold.
How would you describe Harold as a director?
Oh god, it was like you didn’t even know he was there! [laughs] He’s just so a part of everything. You’re not intimidated because you know that he trusts you and of course, you trust him. He was open to anything, and anytime you could make him laugh, that was great because he loved to laugh. Not long ago, I did a pilot with Peter Tolan who wrote “Analyze This,” which Harold directed. I told him that my favorite scene of all time is the one in that film where Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro are at the mob meeting. He rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, I had nothing to do with that. I was away that day, and Billy and Harold came up with that together.” I didn’t think he was thrilled [laughs] but he recognized how great it was, and it was a result of Harold wanting to dig for what is the best and the funniest while taking a risk by not going for the obvious.
It was wonderful to see you and Chris Elliott in “Schitt’s Creek,” since that show is, in many ways, a 21st century “Groundhog Day,” in which the main characters find themselves trapped in a small town before ultimately leaving as better people.
Oh that’s great! It was such a privilege to work on that show. Catherine and I are old friends from high school, but we never got to have a scene together on the show, and I only had a small scene with Eugene. Most of my scenes were with Daniel [Levy], who I have known since he was a baby. He was down in Jamaica with us when we were shooting Harold’s film, “Club Paradise,” so I have memories of him there when he was two years old. When I acted opposite him on “Schitt’s Creek,” they had to keep cutting because I kept accidentally calling him Daniel rather than his character’s name, David, because all I could see was little baby Daniel. [laughs] What an honor to have been on that show and in “Groundhog Day.” I taught at Humber College for twenty years in their comedy program, and the guy who taught writing for film would show “Groundhog Day” to his students every year as an example of a great film. Whenever he did that, my esteem went up immediately with the students.
3. Marita Geraghty as Nancy Taylor
Nancy seems like a fun role because it enables you to play so many different sides of this woman, as Phil asks her questions about her past one day, and then pretends that they are old friends on the next.
The whole shoot was such a joy for me and Harold was such a warm, wonderful person. Although I wasn’t hired as a local—I had lived in New York City as a stage actress before marrying and moving to Los Angeles—I was born in Chicago. I went to grade school in Oak Park, and then I went to high school further out in the suburbs, so it was super-fun for me to be coming home. If I wasn’t shooting, I’d just drive to my parents’ house in Glen Ellyn for dinner. My parents had lilacs at their wedding and since we were filming in Spring, there were so many lilacs between Woodstock and Glen Ellyn where they lived. It was around the time of their anniversary, so I borrowed their shears and brought home some of the flowers.
It was a super-peaceful set because Harold never showed any stress on the surface. Though I trained for stage, I did attend the very first year of the player’s workshop for teenagers at Second City when I was in high school, and I had a little card that had Del Close’s signature on it. The Catholic school that I went to, Benet Academy, was near Naperville, and I had two great directors while I was there including David Zak, who started the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. He was there for two of my four years of high school, and if he hadn’t been there, I likely would’ve become a doctor like my brothers and sisters.
Right. [laughs] Bill Hurt was so nice. He had just been nominated back to back years for Academy Awards, and he came by my hotel room to introduce himself so that we wouldn’t have just met on the set. And I thought, ‘Yes, I know who you are.’ [laughs] Bill Murray was also nice to me, and was often teasing me good-naturedly. I knew he had gone to the same Catholic high school as some of my cousins, so I did my Catholic Chicago pushback and was like, “Don’t razz me too much. I have connections to your background,” as if he cared. Those jokes were said off camera during the big scene outside, which was more involved since it required the wrangling of many extras. When we were doing our lines, Bill would often say funny, far-out things that weren’t in the script when the camera was on me. It didn’t throw me because the tone of the scene was upbeat, she was excited to be talking to this person, and the comedy was only situational.
Do you remember what your initial impressions were of the film?
I thought it was funny and touching. Harold’s made a lot of fantastic films that were super-important to me, especially as a Chicagoan. There wasn’t a guy I dated who couldn’t quote all the lines from “Stripes” or “Caddyshack,” so even though I had already worked with people like Bill Hurt, when I got the role in “Groundhog Day,” my Chicago friends and family were like, “This is it!” I honestly didn’t think the film would go on to be studied in philosophy courses. I love other films Bill made like “What About Bob?”, but not everyone I know has seen it. I almost never meet anyone who hasn’t seen “Groundhog Day.” I went through a long period of time in which people would shout out, “Nancy…Nancy Taylor?!” [laughs]
What specifically have you taken from your experience of working with Harold?
We completely felt that we were in good hands. Harold was there running the ship, but he was still thinking about his family through it all, supporting both things at the same time. He was very freeing, and I think the brilliance of most good directors is in the casting, not in nitpicking what you’re doing while you’re working. Had I known how sick Harold was, I would’ve sent him a love letter saying just how much I treasured the time I had worked with him, what a mensch he was and what a lovely set he created. He really was special.
4. Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson
You are beloved by the people of Woodstock for how often you have come back for their annual festivities. On the official town mural—which includes esteemed former citizens like Orson Welles and Chester Gould—the biggest face is that of Ned Ryerson.
I have not only seen the mural, but I have been to D.C. Cobb’s, where they have a damn sandwich named after Ned Ryerson—which is almost inedible! The last time I was there, I had a Ned Ryerson and went, “Who could eat this and not have a heart attack?” [laughs] I went to college at Southern Methodist University, where I took a course in improvisation. Second City was a big thing at the time, so we called our improv group Ninth City. When we were told that Dallas had increased its population, we had to change our name to Eighth City. What really impressed me was Ed K. Martin, a teacher I had at the University of Illinois when I attempted to get a Master’s degree. He taught us the Stanislavsky method of acting through improvisation, and that the mistake people make in improvisation is to tell a joke or try to be clever. Ed K. Martin said, “You tell the truth. What improv reveals, when it works best, is the truth, and when people see the truth, they will laugh.”
A perfect example of that in “Groundhog Day” is a scene between Ned and Phil that was completely improvisational. It’s the moment when Bill hugs me and asks, “Are you busy later today?” None of that was rehearsed. The script had different dialogue, but Bill said, “I want to try something,” and Harold rolled the camera. I’m of the school of acting where you keep going until the director says cut. Harold never said cut, so I decided to just run around the corner, and we did that in one take with four cameras set up. That was an Ed K. Martin improvisation in that it was guided by the truth of the scene, and how Ned would respond to having one of his iconic heroes from high school behave in this way.
How did you nail the character of Ned in the audition?
I got the script of “Groundhog Day” when I was working on another movie, “Calendar Girl,” in Paris, California. I played a hit man whose brother was a deaf mute hit man played by Kurt Fuller. This was the only time in my career while working out of town where they put me in the same room as another actor, so Kurt Fuller and I were bedmates! We each had a double bed, and it was like camp. After a day of shooting, the lights go out and Kurt asks, “So what are you doing?” I didn’t want to say anything because I had learned at that point in time that the one thing an actor hates more than anything else is to hear that another actor has auditioned. The only thing an actor wants to hear is that you’re actually leaving the business and opening up a delicatessen.
So I said, “Oh, I don’t know, Kurt, just knocking on doors, same old same old. You got anything going on?” He goes, “Well yeah, actually, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray are friends of mine, and I’m going to be playing this crazy insurance guy Ned Ryerson in their new movie, ‘Groundhog Day.’” And I’m looking up at the ceiling knowing that the next day, I am auditioning for that role with Harold Ramis. So now, my brain is on fire, and I feel like I’m in a cloud of Agent Orange. I’m wondering how I’m ever going to be able to get to sleep. The next morning, I drove to Los Angeles and met Harold Ramis for the first time. What I did at that audition was something that Ed K. Martin taught me, which is that acting is never polite. Don’t worry about being polite, worry about being truthful. Harold asked, “Do you mind if I read with you? I’ll be Phil and you will be Ned.” This terrified me, but since Harold knew improv, I figured that I should just go full speech ahead.
I did everything in that audition—I zipped and unzipped Harold’s pants, I tied his shoes, I unbuttoned his shirt, I tried to show him how to put on a tie, all while doing the Ned stuff. Harold is laughing so much that he’s having trouble reading the script, so he goes, “Stop, just stop! What are you up to now?” I told him I was going to finish shooting “Calendar Girl” the next day, and he said, “Okay, if we have to call you back, I’ll let you know.” So I drive back to Paris, California, and before I get back, I get a call from my agent saying, “You got the part.” I arrive on the set, and now I have to spend another night with Kurt Fuller. And it is not the night that the first night was. Kurt has obviously heard the news and he is furious. He feels betrayed and that there was some sort of conspiracy, but you know, this kind of thing happens the other way too where I get the shaft and the other actor gets the part. When you’re an actor, terrible things happen most of the time.
“Groundhog Day” and “Calendar Girl” had the same line producer, who is the guy in charge of scheduling, and he used his powers to violate SAG regulations so there did not have to be the customary time in between work days. Because of this, once I finished the movie in Paris, California, I had to drive three hours to LAX to get the flight to Chicago. My flight got in at three in the morning, and somebody drove me to the inn where I would be staying. I get to the inn around 4am, and my call time is 6:30am. I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, “You have trained your whole life for this moment—not the moment where you were the star in a college play. You trained so you could do this without any sleep.” I get to the town square with all the extras, and that’s where Harold introduced me to Bill. Harold is being very friendly to me, and Bill interrupts and says, “Show me what you’re going to do.” So I did the same routine with him that I did with Harold, and Bill says, “Okay, stop. You can do that, that’s funny.” Bill had given me his approval.
I also must share something with you that is miraculous. When I was in high school, I was in a one-act play contest, and I was playing Harpagon, the 80-year-old miser in Molière’s play. Our teacher, Mary Curtis, kind of bent the rules a little bit by bringing in a man from outside the high school to help us with our comedy. His name was David Nichols, who was a big star in Dallas at the time. He watched me before taking me aside and saying, “Stephen, comedy is not about just energy. It is about specificity, it’s about stopping, it’s about silences, it’s about clarity of thought. Make sure everything you do is clear.” The second time I met David Nichols was my first day in Los Angeles. His brother Chris said, “Why don’t you look up David? He is in LA now.” David was now no longer an actor, but he was working for the art department on a movie, and when I called him, he says, “Stephen, why don’t you come have lunch with me, and you can watch us film a movie?”
The movie he was working on was “New York, New York,” so on my first day in LA, I am having lunch with David Nichols at the same table as Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. We’re at a table for six, and Martin is looking at me like, “Who is this guy?” Robert De Niro is giving me the stink eye and probably thinking, “Is this guy from production? Am I gonna have to rough this guy up?” The third time in my life I met David Nichols was when I was doing “Great Balls of Fire” in Memphis, Tennessee, and he was asked to be in the art department there. He shows up on the day that my wife, Annie, and I eloped. As we walked back into the hotel, there’s David Nichols! I went, “Oh my god!”, and he raised a toast to me and Annie.
Now back to my first day on “Groundhog Day.” I am as scared as a jackrabbit because Bill and I are starting to rehearse the scene, and there are 500 townspeople from Woodstock standing in the town square watching us. Our street scene is the first thing that is going to be shot, so we block it out, and I am so nervous that my heart is in my throat. It is about 7:30 in the morning, I haven’t had any sleep, and I am looking across this sea of people—and at the end of the line is David Nichols! They called him in to be the production designer! He looks at me and makes a fist, which was his sign that meant, “Comedy is about specificity,” and suddenly my heart became calm. That was the fourth time I saw him.
Bill and I just raised a ruckus in that first street scene, but I was still feeling very self-conscious about the size of my performance. So in between takes, I sit down next to Harold and ask, “Am I too broad? Am I being too big with this?” Harold starts laughing, and he says to me, “Stephen, let me tell you something about comedy. In Jewish comedy, there is the schlemiel and schlimazel. The schlemiel is the guy who always spills soup, the schlimazel is the guy who always gets soup spilled on him. That is the form of comedy universally. In this, you are the schlemiel. You could do anything you want, as big as you want. Bill is the schlimazel, he has to be the world. You are the aberrant force.” And in that movie, Bill is both. In the scenes with me, he is the world, and then not long afterward, he goes into the diner where he’s the schlemiel and Andie is the schlimazel. As an audience, we believe both completely, and that’s why “Groundhog Day” is such an amazing movie.
Why do you feel the film has become so beloved around the world?
I’m going to say something really strange, but I think a lot of it is Andie. Besides “Groundhog Day” being at a period in film history where there were the greatest of all rom-coms like “When Harry Met Sally…” being made, the thing that Andie brought to the film was the notion of true love, which gives it a timelessness. I was working on a project yesterday in which people were talking about “Groundhog Day,” and I heard a unique point of view from one of the people working on it, who said, “The world is in such tatters now. Factions are fighting against one another, and so the things that used to bring people together like Christmas no longer do. The one holiday that brings people together no matter who they are is Groundhog Day, and they have a classic film named after it that is emblematic of true love.” And that’s Andie MacDowell. She brought her heart and soul to that film in a way that could believably tame Bill Murray, no matter how cantankerous he was.
Ned represents the hell that Phil Conners is in. I’ve read speculation on the internet claiming that Ned is the Devil, which is not true. Ned is crucial in that he puts the audience on Phil’s side because no one wants to hang around Ned for that period of time. When we filmed the scene where Phil punches Ned, Bill said, “Okay, lean back and when the fist goes back, that’s the sign that I’m going to come through.” They put down four pads for me to land on, and I asked Harold, “Do you want me looking anywhere after Bill punches?” He replied, “You can do that?”, and I said, “Harold, he’s not going to hit me. I’m just going to do a dancer turn, look at wherever you tell me, and then fall out of frame.” So he says, “Well, look at the opera house over there.” Bill timed the punch perfectly, I turned and fell with the clarity that David Nichols taught me, and it still gets applause in the movie theater because it’s everybody’s dream to just shut Ned up. [laughs]
Returning to the Woodstock Square to film the Super Bowl commercial was super-special. Bill is one of the best actors I have ever worked with. There was never a take where he wasn’t in the moment a hundred percent, and a la Ed K. Martin, told the truth. They brought me in from the airport for the commercial, and Bill is there at the bar. He said, “Do you want to have a drink?”, and I said, “Sure,” so we sat down, and this was the day before we were going to shoot the commercial. Bill said, “Do you remember much about shooting ‘Groundhog Day’?” And I go, “Bill, I remember a lot.” He says, “Tell me about the first day because I don’t remember any of it,” so I told him the stories I told you. I also reminded him of the day that he looked at the crowd of 500 people and said, “These people need danishes.” He had me come with him to the donut shop and Bill pulled out a wad of money, put it on the counter and said, “Give me every donut, muffin and danish you have.” He piled up the boxes on my arms, then started throwing the donuts to the crowd and they started screaming.
This is before we had shot anything, and I thought, ‘What a brilliant move.’ In one moment, Bill unified the entire town when they could’ve been put off about a movie disrupting everything. I also recalled how Bill and I initially had nine street scenes, and it was cut down to five. Harold Ramis had not decided what the day of the movie would be because it had to be repeated meteorologically, and since we are shooting outside of Chicago, you get every kind of weather. So Bill and I had no schedule. We were both put on “will notify,” so we had to be near a telephone, and if the weather changed and Bill was working on another scene, Harold would round up the troops and say, “Get Stephen, get Bill—we have to do the street scene number one in the snow,” or the rain, or the fog, or the sleet, or the hail, or the sunshine. So Bill and I did all of those street scenes in every weather condition. At the end of it, Harold picked the gloomy day to be the day that is repeated, and when the snow starts to fall, that is when time starts.
The only scene that does not fit the template was a result of the fact that we only had the groundhog for two hours, so when Bill steals the groundhog and starts driving, the sun came out. It is the only scene in the movie that has the sun, and Harold told John Bailey, the cinematographer, to just make it look as gloomy as he could. He did a pretty good job. John was a brilliant cinematographer, one of the best of all time. Let me close by sharing with you the most important moment I had with Harold Ramis. After the film was done, we were in Los Angeles and Trevor Albert, the producer, had a party at his house up in the mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Harold Ramis showed up and we were sitting outside. He pulled out his guitar and started plucking it, and I said, “Harold, everybody is asking me all the time how long Bill is trapped in the town.” Harold just smiled and said, “Well, Stephen, it’s 10,000 years.” I asked, “Why is it 10,000 years?” He answered, “Well, I’m a practicing Buddhist, and we believe in Buddhism that it takes 10,000 years to perfect the human soul, and that is the story of ‘Groundhog Day’—the perfection of the human soul.”
The Groundhog Day Celebration honoring Harold Ramis will be held at 3pm CT at Harry Caray’s Tavern, 700 E. Grand Avenue, in Chicago’s Navy Pier. For tickets to the free event, click here.