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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Harold Ramis put 'Caddyshack' in the bag

Ramis, who died this week, made his directorial debut on the 1980 golf comedy. We had that going for us, which was nice.

February 26, 2014|Chris Erskine
  • Director Harold Ramis on the set of "Year One." Ramis, who died Monday at age 69, directed the classic 1980 golf movie "Caddyshack."
Director Harold Ramis on the set of "Year One." Ramis, who died… (Suzanne Hanover / Columbia…)

There are only a few true masterpieces that debuted in my lifetime: the '64 Mustang; Sandra Bullock's perfect chin; and "Caddyshack," whose director, Harold Ramis, passed the other day at age 69, too damn soon, as if only on life's 14th hole.

And yet 1,000 laughs over par.

From the snickering hiss of the fairway sprinklers to Rodney Dangerfield's bug-eyed dancing, "Caddyshack" mixed all that was right about sports and movies into one great comedy overture. Though panned by critics at the time, the 1980 movie remains a classic by any measure, and the funniest sports movie of all time, hands down.

"Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper now about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac ... It's in the hole! It's in the hole!"

Life is the longest par five, so lord help us if we don't have movies like Ramis' "Caddyshack" to help us through. They appear as little bits of fluff but are really spun gold.

If only life were always this funny.

Walk into any clubhouse in America and you'll find some wiseguy — he may be 28, he may be 58 — who can quote "Caddyshack" the way we all wish we could quote Shakespeare or Twain.

"So we finish 18 and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know?' And he says, 'Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.' So I got that going for me, which is nice."

Even President Obama noted Ramis' passing Monday, calling him "one of America's greatest satirists." But with due respect, Ramis didn't make movies for movers and shakers. He made them for people who don't dominate a room, or slip effortlessly into social situations. He made movies for the rest of us.

Filmed in a sweaty fall in south Florida, "Caddyshack" extended our childhoods. The movie marked Ramis' directorial debut. The son of a Chicago grocer, he actually was a Cinderella story. Outta nowhere.

"He had everything you wanted from a director, and he had it from the beginning," recalls Michael O'Keefe, who played caddie Danny Noonan. "He was the glue, and he was affable and so smart. He engendered trust in everybody immediately."

O'Keefe explains how the script changed on set, as it became clear that Noonan's coming-of-age story had to take a back seat to the improvised brilliance of Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight.

"Harold and [co-writers] Doug Kenney and Brian Murray said we've got to go with these four guys and … just take this thing for a ride," O'Keefe says.

When a co-star complained privately to O'Keefe about their diminished roles, the 24-year-old actor explained, "Look, we're looking at the Marx Brothers, and we're Zeppo."

The result was a comedy masterpiece, with reference points reaching to Groucho and Preston Sturges. Like many of the most beloved comedies, it is subversive, spontaneous, a little dangerous. Much of it was improvised.

"Bill's part wasn't even written," O'Keefe explains during a rehearsal break in New York. "There were just notes: 'Carl tries to kill a gopher.' Those scenes are all Bill and Harold."

Most of the principals were still on the way up and, though stories of misbehavior and drug use on set are legendary, "These guys were dedicated and they were ambitious and they knew they had a hit comedy on their hands," O'Keefe says now.

Chase was at his cool-guy best. Dangerfield had done so little movie work, according to lore, that he didn't remember what to do when Ramis yelled "action!"

O'Keefe played Noonan, relaxed and natural in scenes with some of the best improv talents in history. Ted Knight was Ted Knight.

"I like to say we were struck by comedy lightning," says Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, the leggy blond who roamed the course like she owned it.

"It was kamikaze filmmaking at its best," she says from her home, 30 miles from the course where the movie was filmed.

She remembers tanker trucks pumping gasoline into the fairways without knowledge of the course owners, and the three-story fireballs that followed.

"Then they painted it green and blew it up again the next day," she says.

Most of all, she remembers Ramis' gentle genius, and the collaborative atmosphere he created.

"I walk out one day and there's Billy swinging at the mums," she says of one of the film's most memorable scenes. "It was like making home movies of my family behaving badly."

And, in the end, comedy lightning.

[For the record, 6:50 p.m. Wednesday: A previous version of this post said “Caddyshack” was Rodney Dangerfield’s film debut. His first movie role was in 1971’s “The Projectionist.”]

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

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