Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’s time-loop comedy about an unfortunate weatherman stuck in the same day in the same dead-end town, has become not just an unlikely classic but one of Bill Murray’s most loved and critically praised performances.
However, off-screen, the experience of making this repeat-until-perfect rom-com is far from fondly remembered by those who made it.
Turning 30 this week, Groundhog Day couldn’t have come at a better time in Ramis’ career. After helming hits like 1980’s Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983, the writer, director and part-time actor had found huge success starring as proton pack-wielding smart guy Egon Spengler, the brains of the Ghostbusters, in 1984 and again in 1989. However, by the early ’90s following the lukewarm release of his Robin Williams and Jimmy Cliff beach-holiday comedy Club Paradise, he was in dire need of a hit.
Cue Groundhog Day, a movie with a unique premise that would re-team him with his long-time friend and frequent collaborator Bill Murray.
Co-written by Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, the film’s weird plot gelled nicely with the director’s own growing interest in the Humanist religious beliefs and philosophies that turned focus inwards and focused on self-improvement.
Murray played Phil, a self-centred weatherman for a regional TV station who’s shipped off to small-town Pennsylvania to cover their annual Groundhog Day celebrations and the emergence of local hero Punxsutawney Phil — a groundhog with the ability to predict how long winter will last depending on whether or not he can see his own shadow.
Miffed at the job, Phil naturally can’t wait to leave — but when he awakes the next day, he finds himself reliving the very same Groundhog Day all over again… and again and again for a time-loop stint that, according to one dedicated film blog, lasts for 33 years and 350 days. Naturally, he doesn’t find it all that fun but does eventually learn to become a better person in the process.
On release, the film was a moderate hit but in the years since, it’s emerged as a favourite of fans and critics alike, spawning its own short-lived musical and regularly dissected by philosophers and religious pundits eager to find their own meaning in Phil’s madness.
However, for Ramis, the making of Groundhog Day all but destroyed one of his longest friendships and most successful comedy partnerships — and it was something that would bug the director for the remainder of his life.
As Ramis’s daughter, Violet Ramis Stiel, explains in her brilliant 2018 memoir Ghostbuster’s Daughter, a combination of factors led to this unfortunate rift. “Bill was going through a difficult time in his personal life, and he and my dad were not seeing eye to eye on the tone of the film.
"They had a few arguments on set, including one in which my dad uncharacteristically lost his temper, grabbed Bill by the collar, and shoved him up against a wall,” she reveals. “Eventually, Bill just completely shut my dad out… for the next twenty years.”
Without going into specifics, Stiel paints a picture of a complex friendship pushed to its limit on an unexpectedly tense set.
As a result, just like a reverse Phil Connors, Murray retreated inwards. He was notably absent from the movie’s 1993 Los Angeles premiere and despite Ramis occasionally reaching out to him in the years following, dearly missing one of his oldest pals and comedy collaborators, Murray didn’t return the favour.
Meanwhile, the gap between the two continued to grow. “My dad did his best to be diplomatic about the whole thing and tried not to take it personally, but it bothered him,” Stiel explained.
“He described feeling variously heartbroken, confused and yet unsurprised by the rejection, explaining ‘Bill would give you his kidney if you needed it, but wouldn’t necessarily return your phone calls.’”
While this issue could arguably be behind the long and drawn-out trouble in getting a third Ghostbusters movie off the ground with the original cast, it also paints a very grounded picture of a Hollywood star that’s frequently obscured by tall tales, mystery and his own larger-than-life persona.
After all, Murray even has his own documentary dedicated to such wild stories in 2018’s The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man. Eventually, the rift did get resolved — and like some kind of Hollywood third-act ending, it was imbued with notes of heartbreak, humour and an unspoken reconciliation that’s sadly typical with some male friendships.
While Ramis was battling the illness that would ultimately take his life at just 69 years old and largely unable to speak, Murray made one of his famous impromptu appearances.
Stiel recalls the moment, saying: “In classic Bill fashion, he showed up at the house, unannounced, at 7AM, with a police escort and a dozen doughnuts,” adding that Murray and her father “spent a couple hours together, laughed a little and made their peace.”
While it may have provided the long-overdue happy ending Ramis sought, the human side of the situation — the sometimes unexplainable nature of people’s actions and the unexpected impact they can have on others nearby the chaos — still lingers in his daughter’s mind.
“I’ve reached out to Bill a few times since my dad’s death but, apart from one brief text message, haven’t got a response,” she says. “I guess I’m stuck with my unresolved feelings.”
Groundhog Day is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership. Watch a trailer below.