Montecito filmmaker directed classic comedies, everything from ‘Ghostbusters’ to ‘Stripes’
Ivan Reitman made ghosts believable, togas popular and Arnold Schwazenegger funny.
He turned a comedic TV actor, Bill Murray, into a bona fide movie star and got Robert Redford to tap dance on the silver screen.
Mr. Reitman, a popular Montecito filmmaker who defined much of what made the late 1970s and 1980s funny and continued to be a Hollywood success story right up to recent months, died Sunday.
He was 75, and he was a big name in the history of Hollywood, directing top stars in the funniest movies: “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and more.
But Mr. Reitman, who co-owned the Montecito Picture Company with Tom Pollack, also cared about his community. He answered phones before the cameras during telethons for Unity Shoppe, the Santa Barbara nonprofit helping people in need.
“It was fun to have someone of his notoriety and celebrity status helping us,” Unity Shoppe Executive Director Tom Reed told the News-Press Monday. “If you called in a pledge and Ivan Reitman picked up the phone, what do you think? You think the donation got a little bit bigger? Sure. It was a surprise for people, and it was fun stuff.”
“That was gratifying for us to have to have someone of his stature acknowledge us … giving us credibility and supporting Unity Shoppe,” Mr. Reed said.
Friend Jelinda DeVorzon remembers Mr. Reitman.
“He was the greatest man,” the Montecito resident told the News-Press Monday. “He was so talented. He was so generous. He was one of the most generous people I ever met.
“He was a talented producer and director, and he loved his family with all his heart,” Mrs. DeVorzon said. “He appreciated living in Santa Barbara. He built that beautiful home. He really loved life.
“We’re all very sad that he’s no longer with us,” Mrs. DeVorzon said.
She recalled the times Mr. Reitman and his wife Genevieve would invite her and her husband, Barry DeVorzon, to their Montecito home to screen movies.
“We couldn’t wait to go over there and have Ivan’s popcorn,” Mrs. DeVorzon said. “He had a popcorn maker, and he made this really great popcorn. Those were fun times.”
Mrs. DeVorzon praised Mr. Reitman for his films.
“His movies lifted our spirits,” she said. “They were fun and they were funny, and they’re timeless. We certainly could use a little laughter these days. Ivan gave that to all of us.”
And Mrs. DeVorzon noted Mr. Reitman gave to his community. When she served as president of the board of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, she invited him to serve on the board, and he did.
“Then I came to Ivan and said, ‘Could you help with Unity Shoppe?’ There he was, helping with the telethons,” Mrs. DeVorzon said.
When Mrs. DeVorzon was on the fundraising committee for construction at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, she asked Mr. Reitman for help. He gave a generous donation.
“He loved this community, and he was very philanthropic,” Mrs. DeVorzon said.
Mr. Reitman was born Oct. 27, 1946, in Komarno, Czechoslovakia. His mother survived Auschwitz, and his father fought in the resistance. The Reitman family escaped when communists started to imprison capitalists after World War II, traveling to Vienna in a nailed-down barge when Ivan Reitman was 4 years old.
The Reitmans ended up with a relative in Toronto, where young Ivan entertained his friends and family with a puppet theater. He also played coffee houses with a folk music group and went to study music and drama at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Mr. Reitman’s big Hollywood break came with “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” the 1978 comedy that mined comic gold from fraternities and toga parties and launched movie careers for John Belushi of “Saturday Night Live” and other actors such as Tim Matheson. Mr. Reitman produced the movie, and John Landis directed it.
Stephen Furst, the late Moorpark TV and movie actor, told this writer how he got his acting role in “Animal House.” The struggling actor was delivering pizzas, and one of his customers happened to be Mr. Landis. Mr. Furst taped his resume on the inside of the lid of the pizza box, and that got Mr. Landis’ attention when he opened it in his home. That’s how Mr. Furst got to play “Flounder.”
Mr. Furst, who later went on to act on the sci-fi series “Babylon 5,” was part of a film that established Mr. Reitman as a producer who could cleverly push the envelope in comedy. He certainly did that with “Animal House.”
Mr. Reitman also took comedy to new heights with the boot camp spoof “Stripes,” which he produced and directed. The 1981 film teamed Mr. Murray with John Candy, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Sean Young and P. J. Soles. The mean drill sergeant (who turned out to have a good heart) was Sgt. Hulka, played by Warren Oates.
Mr. Reitman regularly cast Mr. Murray in his movies, in everything from “Meatballs,” the 1979 summer camp comedy that put him on the big screen, to “Ghostbusters,” the 1984 comedy that also starred Mr. Murray’s fellow “Saturday Night Live” actor Dan Aykroyd. Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. Ramis co-wrote the movie, which featured dialogue that fans can recite almost 40 years later.
“Ray, when someone asks if you are a god, you say yes!” Winston (Ernie Hudson) told Ray (Mr. Aykroyd) after telling an evil, powerful god he isn’t a god (and therefore vulnerable).
One of the best battle cries in movie history comes from Dr. Peter Venkman (Mr. Murray) when the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man walks through New York City and steps on something sacred. That made Peter that much more determined to fight back.
“Nobody steps on a church in my town!” Peter yells.
And of course, there was the movie’s catch phrase from its theme song: “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!”
Mr. Reitman encouraged the funny side in a serious actor known for his tough guy roles. He worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins,” the 1988 comedy in which the tall actor played the twin brother of short actor Danny Devito’s character. (Who knew they looked so much alike?)
Mr. Schwarzenegger continued to act in other films directed by Mr. Reitman such as “Kindergarten Cop” (1990) and “Junior” (1994). In the latter movie, Mr. Schwarzenegger plays Dr. Alex Hesse, who agrees to an experiment that makes him the first man to give birth.
See, Mr. Reitman could get an actor to do anything.
He got Mr. Redford to tap dance when his character, Assistant District Attorney Tom Logan, can’t fall asleep at night in his apartment in “Legal Eagles.” The 1986 comedy-thriller goes back and forth between Tom and attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) both doing everything they can in their respective homes to fall asleep.
That was a common thread in Mr. Reitman’s movies. He knew how to make specific scenes that would stick in viewer’s memories, as well as develop stories and characters that would resonate decades later.
That certainly was the case with “Dave,” the 1993 comedy starring Kevin Kline as an ordinary guy substituting for the president of the United States. It also starred Sigourney Weaver of “Ghostbusters” fame as Ellen Mitchell, the first lady, and the comedy poses the question of whether she’ll figure out this guy really isn’t the president.
The chemistry between Mr. Kline and Ms. Weaver is great in the film — it’s a blend of love and friction — and that was a trademark of Mr. Reitman’s movies: strong relationships between the characters, even in the midst of humor. Mr. Reitman realized comedy was more about people than punchlines.
And with the family-friendly “Beethoven” franchise, Mr. Reitman showed he could produce great comedy in stories starring a St. Bernard.
The “Beethoven” movies had what fans found in all of Mr. Reitman’s films: a lot of heart.
In the end, New York City survived in “Ghostbusters” because Ray, Peter, Egon (Mr. Ramis) and Winston believed in each other and in saving others, whatever it took. Mr. Reitman knew how to turn funny, even silly, characters into timeless heroes. That was a theme that still resonated when Mr. Reitman produced “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” the recent movie directed by his son, Jason.
The father-and-son team received a best picture Oscar nomination for “Up in the Air,” a 2009 film starring George Clooney as a downsizing expert who flies a lot. Ivan and Jason produced it, and Jason was the director.
In addition to Jason and wife Genevieve, Mr. Reitman is survived by their other children, Caroline and Catherine.