I feel compelled to share with you what Harold Ramis meant to me. He was such a wonderful human being and such an inspiration to me I feel that to do anything less would dishonor his memory. For those of you still unfamiliar with his life and work I commend you to this article.
People everywhere know his genius from the films he made. I was privileged to know the man - always generous, compassionate, supportive, inclusive, humble, wise... He was my mentor and friend - a pillar of strength and integrity, his voice a beacon for how to face a world of deceit and lies and hurt. The sadness I feel at his passing is immense.
I first met Harold in his office in a northern Chicago suburb in the summer of 2003. We were introduced by a friend of mine – an attorney who seems to know everyone in Chicago. We had such a pleasant conversation that only afterwards did I realize how strange it was – Harold spent well over an hour chatting with my wife and me, simply getting to know us. It’s hard to imagine many Hollywood celebrities spending that same kind of time making leisurely inquiries, serving tea and cookies, and being equally interested in my wife and her work as a writer and English professor as in mine.
I don’t remember now whether it was that first conversation when I asked him to mentor me. Given my usual chutzpah it’s entirely possible. But most likely it was a year or two later. I do remember his answer though. Not a yes or a no, more “let’s just wait and see how things go.” I think Harold preferred to leave things like that unsaid. But the truth is from that first meeting forward he did whatever he could to make himself available to me and to be of service in whatever ways he could. That willingness to benefit others, to put oneself at the service of another’s development and well-being is a fundamental pillar of mentorship.
Another pillar of mentorship is simply showing up - spending the time, making yourself available. Not long after we met, I did a presentation for the Chicago branch of the Young Presidents Association on the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth. Harold came to the event in a private home in the same wealthy, north side Chicago suburb where he lived. He publicly thanked me for coming to his community to bring the message, implicitly recognizing that this wasn’t an issue just for “them” – “at risk youth,” the low income folks of color in the city – but for white suburbanites too. He had the courage to say, however sweetly, “Wake up folks. It’s our kids too!”
Harold demonstrated another fundamental principle of mentorship - open your contacts and integrate mentees into your professional network. He went out of his way to introduce me to two of his old friends from college – George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse, and Ben Zaricor, founder of the Good Earth Tea Company. In time, both men came to be supporters of my work.
Harold told me, as he’s publicly told many, he considered himself “Buddhish.” Something like, but not quite a Jewish-Buddhist. “Buddhish”… a term far superior to the more commonly used “Jew-Bu” or “Bu-Jew.” No doubt because of the humor brought by the “ish” and its colloquial meaning from Jewish culture as “sort of” or “approximately.” The truth is that many of his family members are practicing Buddhists and that Harold himself was deeply impacted by Buddhist thought. I think he was one of those rare minds who could be introduced to the main principles of Buddhism and subsequently spend an entire lifetime observing them without, to my knowledge, ever formally practicing. The man lived the Eight Fold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. He embodied the principles that so many of my teachers emphasize: “Don’t talk about Buddhism. Be a Buddha.” Or, as the Dalai Lama has put it: “The world doesn’t need more Buddhists. What the world needs is kindness.” Harold embodied kindness.
And generosity. When he turned out with his wife at a Chicago fundraiser to support my Buddhist film Journey from Zanskar it wasn’t enough for him to show up and be the celebrity co-host – to pose for pictures and sign autographs. He circulated and made sure everyone had a chance to say hello. He and his wife donated their own money too.
The connection he had to my Boys to Men? film and its sequel, now in production, called Rites Of Passage: Mentoring The Future, was even more personal. He had sat in regular men’s circles in LA in the 80s and 90s. He knew first-hand there was something that men needed from each other in order to become the men they always wanted to be. He also implicitly understood the importance of pro-social rites of passage for youth to help them transition into young adulthood. He was proud of the fact that both his sons had been Bar Mitzvah’d.
Harold served for four years as an advisor and two years formally on my Warrior Films Board. Even with his very full schedule he attended meetings regularly and offered everything he could. I had the bad sense to schedule our yearly in person meetings in Chicago in December. Harold always drove downtown without complaint - during rush hour in the worst conceivable weather - to attend our dinner-time meetings. Every year he offered to pay the bill and I always refused. Finally, he took to surreptitiously paying the bill in advance.
One of his great gifts was turning public events into seemingly personal encounters. He turned up yearly at a fundraiser in San Francisco to support the Zen Hospice Center. The year I went, what he said from the dais magically seemed to address all the personal questions I had for him. His warmth and self-effacing openness never betrayed the fact that he must have made dozens of presentations at similar events. He was so generous with his time and his self-effacing humor.
One tremendous gift I received from him was his mentorship regarding my career. I’ve long been troubled by wounds dating back to the making of Hoop Dreams. The pain recurs regularly, even to this day. Talk about Groundhog Day! Sometimes I do feel stuck waking to the same circumstances in an endless loop. Fortunately, not every day. Harold helped me sort through a workable strategy toward reconciliation and acceptance.
Perhaps the greatest gift I received from him was when he sent me a script of his based on his personal life after college. He’d worked on it off and on for many years. It was a sweet story about a young man seeking to find himself - working through family and relationship issues - while working in a hospital mental ward. I told him there was potential there – a small scale, coming of age drama – but it still needed a lot of work. We talked about the difficulties of making effective drama when you’re still too identified with the primary character and his experiences. A challenge I know from years of trying to make a script based on my family’s life reach its full potential.
But the gift was that he saw fit to send me the script and solicit my opinion. Mentors understand that seeking a mentee’s honest feedback is one of the greatest ways they can honor them. It’s a way of blessing them into a recognition and acceptance of their own greatness. It’s a way of acknowledging them as a peer. Harold did this time and time again for me.
He always welcomed me to visit him on set. I visited the set for Ice Harvest north of Chicago and for Year One in the desert sands of New Mexico. Like a documentary filmmaker, I think he was partially interested to see what might emerge from the chemistry of personalities interacting. He introduced me to John Cusack and Randy Quaid from the former film and Jack Black and Michael Cera from the latter. I also think that inviting friends to his sets were his way of normalizing the extraordinary process of filmmaking, of humanizing it. Over the years I too have sought ways to turn the some times brutalizing process of filmmaking into its own voyage of discovery, not sacrificing even the film’s smallest means to the film’s greater end. Though we never discussed it I sensed that Harold shared this aim.
He embodied another fundamental principle of mentorship – the mentor must be fed alongside the mentee. The relationship has to be reciprocal. Whether it was my comments on his script, my enthusiastic appreciation for his films, the satisfaction he took in my films, or the simple joy he got out of being helpful to me, I do believe our relationship fed him in some small way.
I think Harold sensed how disappointed I was in myself for not being a Hollywood success. When he was finishing Year One my wife and I visited him on the Sony lot. He bought us lunch, brought us to the editing suite to show us some scenes he was working on, and then brought us to the mixing soundstage where they were adding and polishing sound effects. I believe he wanted me to feel comfortable and at home – to make me feel like I belonged. For that gift alone I can weep with gratitude even now.
That was the last time I saw him. He said that he was going to take some time off. I didn’t know then that he already knew about his illness and that he’d spend the next four years fighting it.
His example was the closest I've come in my life - in a literal, physical proximity sense - to a single human being who seemed the complete realization of both his artistic goals and his personal behavior. He was successful both in what he did and who he was. Both the artist and the man were all they could be. A true Laughing Buddha. I miss him already and the grief that I feel is real. But the gratitude for having had him in my life as a mentor and friend is real too and is boundless.
I also feel complete, with no regrets. The last few years, as I knew he was sick and dying, I emailed him occasionally when I thought of him – to thank him for all he did for me, to acknowledge what a profound impact he’d made, and to bless him on his own journey. Which brings me to an essential lesson for the mentee – remember the teacher!
Now with him gone, I’ve already started asking myself, “What would Harold do?” I wish I could channel him to help solve a thorny problem I’m facing right now. Or maybe it is his voice I can hear telling me not to react. “Let it be.” Maybe. All I know is when I grow up, I want to be like Harold.