Ivan Reitman obituary

<span>Photograph: MARKA/Alamy</span>
Photograph: MARKA/Alamy

Film director and producer, known for irreverent comedies such as Ghostbusters and Animal House

When the hot young comics from Saturday Night Live spilled over into cinema in the late 1970s, they needed film-makers who could marshal their unruly talents. That task fell to John Landis, Harold Ramis and especially to Ivan Reitman, who has died aged 75.

Having produced the off-Broadway National Lampoon show, featuring some of the future SNL stars (John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner), Reitman was well placed to launch them on the big screen. He developed and produced Landis’s raucous hit National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), in which Belushi played the wildest member of a 1960s college fraternity. He also directed Ghostbusters (1984), which combined the tomfoolery of old Abbott and Costello movies with the sort of hip, scornful attitude personified by Murray.

Reitman had previously directed the actor in Meatballs (1979), set at a teenagers’ summer camp, and the army comedy Stripes (1981), in which the bumbling US military end up invading Czechoslovakia (the director’s birthplace). High-brow these films were not – one scene in Stripes took place at a topless mud-wrestling contest – but they captured a new generation of comic talents whose carefree irreverence was distinct from the countercultural provocation of Lenny Bruce or the jangling intensity of Richard Pryor. Nowhere was this more evident than in Meatballs, where Murray, as one of the camp’s counsellors, leads his young wards, who are facing a sporting defeat, in chanting, “It just doesn’t matter!”

The genius of Ghostbusters lay in combining this comedy movement with cutting-edge special effects and family-friendly entertainment. Ramis and Dan Aykroyd began writing the film in 1981 as a vehicle for Belushi. When he died of a drug overdose the following year, Ramis and Aykroyd took the script to Reitman, who pointed out the budgetary obstacles in their universe-hopping, time-travelling adventure, and encouraged them to relocate it to present-day New York instead.

The original Ghostbusters (from left) Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, 1984.
The original Ghostbusters (from left) Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, 1984. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

Murray filled Belushi’s role as the most sardonic of a quartet of parapsychologists turned ghost hunters, and the film earned almost $300m worldwide, spawning an animated television series as well as a sequel and several spin-off movies. Reitman directed Ghostbusters II (1989) and produced the others, including the recent Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), which was directed by his son, Jason.

He was born in Komárno, in what is now Slovakia: his father, Ladislav, owned a vinegar factory and had been part of the Czechoslovak resistance during the second world war; his mother, Klara, had survived Auschwitz. To escape the postwar communist regime, they fled to Vienna in the hold of a barge when Ivan was four, eventually reaching relatives in Toronto. Ladislav started his own dry-cleaning business in the city.

Ivan was educated at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, where he made his first short films and met many of the future stars of Canadian comedy, including Rick Moranis, who later starred in Ghostbusters. He directed the comedy Foxy Lady (1971) and the horror spoof Cannibal Girls (1973). He also co-founded the Toronto Film Co-op with the director David Cronenberg, and was among the producers of Cronenberg’s early horror films, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).

His first encounter with Murray during the National Lampoon stage rehearsals in 1975 was an awkward one, as he told the Guardian last year: “I made the mistake of thinking I could be creatively helpful and had the temerity to say: ‘Hey, why don’t you …’ And Bill immediately came over and put his arm around me, took me over to where the coats were hanging, grabbed my scarf, wrapped it dangerously tightly around my neck and said: ‘Hey man, thank you for dropping in.’ He ushered me out of the room without any force, but he had force within him.”

Reitman learned how to harness and shape improvisatory performances on film. “There’s a moment when the actors can say anything they want,” he said in 1993, “and then, part of the fun for me as a director is to take that raw work and just structure it and rework it and make it conform to the character work and to the plot, which is evolving as well. It’s a way of being a co-writer of a movie as it’s being shot. But it doesn’t allow for the same kind of focused direction and polished style that leads to much recognition for the creator of the film.”

The suspicion that he had not been given his proper due was one with which he wrestled throughout his life. “With comedy, people tend to think that you just get some funny guys in a room, turn the camera on and ‘Boom!’ whereas I like to think I had something to do with it,” he said in 2001. “It’s more than just organisation, you know. It’s a perspective and a tone that I applied judiciously.”

Later movies, such as the humdrum caper Legal Eagles (1986), starring Robert Redford, rarely met the same standards of quality control. One exception was the witty and likable Dave (1993), with Kevin Kline as both the US president and the everyman lookalike who replaces him in the White House when he falls ill. Sigourney Weaver (who had starred in the first two Ghostbusters films), Frank Langella and Ben Kingsley rounded out Reitman’s most illustrious cast.

The director could also be credited, or perhaps blamed, with helping to reinvent the action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger as a comedy star. (The actor had approached him and said: “You’re that Ghostbusters guy. I could be a Ghostbuster.”) Their first two collaborations – Twins (1988), in which Schwarzenegger and the physically dissimilar Danny DeVito played long-lost siblings, and Kindergarten Cop (1990) – were popular. Junior (1994), in which Schwarzenegger fell pregnant, was not. “Young men were pissed off that I had taken this macho icon and turned him on his head,” the director said. “I had crossed the line.”

Fathers’ Day (1997), with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, and the science-fiction comedy Evolution (2001) also failed to recapture his earlier magic. His last directing credit was on Draft Day (2014), a sports drama starring Kevin Costner.

He is survived by his wife, the actor and director Geneviève Robert, and by their children, Jason, Catherine and Caroline.

• Ivan Reitman, film director and producer, born 27 October 1946; died 12 February 2022