To absolutely no one’s surprise, Bill Murray is missing. It’s Sept. 7 in the ballroom of Toronto’s Trump tower, and suddenly this EW photo shoot for the Ghostbusters reunion is in danger of suffering the same fate as Ghostbusters III. Most of the cast is here, but Murray, in town for the premiere of his movie St. Vincent at the Toronto Film Festival, is not. He’s apparently in the building somewhere, but he’s now two hours late. Perhaps he’s doing press. Or watching his hometown Chicago Bears play the Buffalo Bills on TV while Tito Puente records blast in the background. Maybe he’s just not in the mood?
”This is a peek into my world,” jokes director Ivan Reitman, who, along with Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis, never quite persuaded Murray to don his Ghostbuster jumpsuit as Dr. Peter Venkman for a third film. But before anyone snaps, Murray slips in, consults with his costars, and goes to work being Bill Murray. He’d requested some 1970s Ethiopian jazz for the shoot — of course he did — and finds his mojo after he switches to an Afrojack tune and personally pumps up the volume. He begins pulling random people into the photo — a shy assistant, a publicist, a crew member — until, by the end of the session, about 30 folks are crowded into the frame with him. But who cares, right? All’s well. He (eventually) came, we (eventually) saw, he (eventually) saved our ass.
Ghostbusters has been with us now for 30 years, but it’s almost impossible to convey the enormousness of the film’s impact on the culture in 1984, when audiences laughed, gasped, laughed some more, and then spent the summer singing along to Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy rhetorical song. In Hollywood, it proved that those young Turks who’d come up through Second City and Saturday Night Live could deliver a monster blockbuster, a comedy Star Wars that dwarfed their nose-thumbing post-Watergate comedies Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Stripes.
The movie had been Aykroyd’s brainchild. ”My great-grandfather was an Edwardian spiritualist, and I took from my family history and married it with the ghost comedies of the 1930s — Abbott and Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and the Bowery Boys,” says Aykroyd, who played Dr. Ray Stantz. ”I just thought, ‘Let’s do a comedy ghost movie, but let’s base it on the real research.”’ Reitman and Ramis helped pare down the time-traveling, multidimensional aspects of Aykroyd’s darker original treatment and sold it to Columbia as a then-pricey $30 million story about a team of supernatural exterminators in New York. ”It was an absolutely easy sell,” says Reitman. ”I had just had three big hits in a row. The studio seemed to have a lot of belief in me and the actors, specifically, as being emerging stars in a big way.”
That’s not to say there weren’t doubts. Big-budget comedies were rare — especially after Steven Spielberg’s 1941 had underperformed — and Ghostbusters mixed in horror and sci-fi elements that included terror dogs and a Godzilla-size marshmallow man. ”I’d never seen anything like it,” says Annie Potts, who played the Ghostbusters’ no-nonsense secretary, Janine. ”I thought, ‘This is just going to be totally awesome or totally awful.”’
But Reitman had Murray as his secret weapon. Their previous collaborations had been filmed in quainter locales such as Kentucky and Ontario, but Ghostbusters was based in the heart of Manhattan, a setting that Murray treated like a Broadway stage. ”The first day we were shooting on the street in New York, Bill and Danny and I were just hanging out on the street, and everyone recognized Bill and Danny from SNL,” Ramis told EW in 2010. ”Someone walked by and said, ‘Hey! Bill Murray!’ And Bill said, in a mock-angry voice, ‘You son of a bitch!’ And he grabbed the guy and he wrestled him to the ground. Just a passerby. The guy was completely amazed — and laughing all the way to the ground.”
Sigourney Weaver, who played Dana, a cellist who becomes possessed, got a similar, if slightly sweeter, reception when she met Murray for the first time, outside of the public library on 42nd Street. ”He literally said, ‘Hi, Sue’ and picked me up and threw me over his shoulder and walked down the street with me,” says Weaver, whose given name is Susan. ”Guys don’t usually throw me, six feet tall, over their shoulders, and I just fell in love with him right then and there.”
Weaver, like Potts and Ernie Hudson, quickly learned how to keep up with the guys’ comic shorthand and on-the-fly high jinks. ”You ever go to a dinner at someone’s house and it’s a real strong family?” asks Hudson, who played Ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore. ”You’re trying to be polite, but they’re just reaching and grabbing stuff, and suddenly you kind of go, ‘Oh, okay, well, if I’m going to eat, I’d better jump in.”’ Working with Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman was just like that, he says. ”They were very, very close in that family way.”
Every family also has its wild child, of course, and Murray took on that role. ”Ivan had an established way of working with the guys, especially with Bill, which is kind of like working with some really gifted capuchin monkey,” says Potts. ”He had a way of corralling that and appreciating it.” Well, sort of. ”It’s not that people were just winging things as we were shooting,” says Reitman. ”It’s more like looking at it as writing the final draft while you’re shooting it. People would think of things, and my job was to continuously edit while we were working.”
The citizens of New York delighted in the daily entertainment unfolding on their sidewalks. ”When the guys are running out of the library after they see the first ghost, they had to do that scene at least 20 times because lens caps would fall off their camera or somebody’s thing would fall out of their pocket,” says Ramis’ daughter Violet Stiel. (Ramis died in February.) ”And the crowd that was watching was enjoying it so much that every time something would fall off, they would cheer because they knew it meant another take.”
That goodwill allowed the production to get away with tying up major intersections around Central Park West for the climactic showdown with Mr. Stay Puft. ”There are big movies, and then there are big movies,” says William Atherton, who played the humorless EPA inspector Walter Peck. ”You’d look down Central Park West, with all these lights and everything — it looked like Triumph of the Will. We were all joking, saying the location manager of this is probably running a radio station in Zaire or something.”
But only a few New Yorkers seemed to mind. ”I remember when we came out on Central Park West, they had filled the entire street with every kind of New Yorker imaginable,” Weaver says. ”It was one of the most moving things I’d ever seen, and you knew right then this was such a special picture and certainly a love letter to New York.”
By the time Ghostbusters opened on June 8, 1984, the film’s buzz had swelled to a deafening roar. An early teaser hit theaters while the film was still shooting, helping the Ghostbusters no-ghosts logo become a thing way in advance. ”People went crazy for the trailer,” says associate producer Joe Medjuck. ”So we thought it was the Stripes audience plus.”
Yet Columbia wasn’t sure, in part because it worried the film was too scary and sexy for kids. (Most of the merchandise came later, after the Ghostbusters cartoon.) Even Reitman had some last-minute jitters, only heightened because his movie was opening the same day as Gremlins. ”Ivan said, ‘We have to get Bill to do more advertising,”’ says Medjuck. ”And Bill said, ‘Ivan, calm down. It’s a freight train. Just get out of the way.”’
Murray was right. The film grossed $229.2 million in 1984 ($552.8 million when adjusted for inflation). At the time, it was the biggest comedy in movie history. Sony released a 30th-anniversary Blu-ray this September, shortly after the film returned to theaters for Labor Day weekend. ”I credit 50 percent of the success of that whole adventure to Murray,” Aykroyd says. ”We’ll never see the likes of it again.”
Of course, there was a sequel: a disappointing 1989 follow-up swamped by the summer of Batman. No one is celebrating Ghostbusters II‘s silver anniversary this year, and Murray has frequently criticized that movie, claiming it traded whatever comic magic the first film had for an extra layer of cheesy special effects.
The past decade or so has been all about a proposed third film, with a reluctant Murray playing party pooper on late-night talk shows. But just as he seemed to be relenting, Ramis died. ”It was terrible,” says Reitman. ”We were very close, and it was sort of the final blow for me as the potential director of another version of this particular movie. I didn’t have the stomach for it any further.”
If the Ghostbusters gang were the comedy Beatles, then Ramis was the group’s George Harrison, a deeply thoughtful and razor-sharp writer who infused a certain elegance into the role of nerdy Dr. Egon Spengler. ”Bill Murray gets most of the love, but there’s a subset of people for whom Egon is their fantasy man,” says Stiel. ”He used to get letters from Japanese girls saying, ‘Egon, I love you. Please marry me. Let’s fly away together.’ I love that the nerds sort of unite behind Egon, and I know that he always really enjoyed that.”
Ramis’ passing hasn’t derailed efforts to get some incarnation of the Ghostbusters back on the big screen. In Toronto Murray admitted he was a fan of the rumor that the next crop of Ghostbusters would be women, and in October Sony confirmed that Bridesmaids director Paul Feig had been chosen to direct an all-female reboot. Aykroyd, who still hasn’t given up on the idea of a Ghostbusters prequel that would visit the trio in their university days, is all-in on the distaff version. ”I think they’re going to kick ass on the concept,” he says. ”I’ve always wanted lady Ghostbusters. We at Ghostbuster corporate headquarters in Culver City are so excited to see what Paul does.” The original Ghostbusters fails the Bechdel Test miserably, but times have changed. ”It’s the age of women,” says Potts. ”I think our next president will be a woman, so I’m happy for the Ghostbusters to be all women too.”
Feig’s new Ghostbusters will be its own origin tale, meaning that the old characters probably won’t pop up to pass the proton packs to the new generation. But the original gang will forever have to answer the call, no matter where they go. ”On my way to the airport, a guy got on the elevator and he quoted the entire line ‘Do you believe in [UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP…]?”’ Hudson says. ”He knew every word, the whole thing. And then he looked at me when he finished, waiting for me to say, ‘If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.’ Which I did. He was elated.”
”I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft.” —Dr. Ray Stantz
”There’s something very important I forgot to tell you. Don’t cross the streams. It would be bad.” —Dr. Egon Spengler
Update: The Ghostbusters Cast
The brains behind Ghostbusters is an entrepreneur with his own brand of vodka, Crystal Head. Aykroyd, 62, also has a small role in Adam Sandler’s action-comedy Pixels, due in July.
The hardworking actor, 68, will pop up as one of Wendie Malick’s exes in a recurring role on Hot in Cleveland, and then appear in an arc for the new Jane Fonda/Lily Tomlin series on Netflix, Grace and Frankie. In the indie Gallows Road, he plays a man whose family is killed in a tragic fire.
Murray, 64, will star as a washed-up record producer in Barry Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah, due in April. He’ll also appear in Cameron Crowe’s still-untitled next movie, opposite his Zombieland costar Emma Stone, and he’s the voice of Baloo the bear in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book.
Having completed her run in Broadway’s Pippin, Potts, 62, will return as a guest star in upcoming episodes of ABC Family’s The Fosters.
The 68-year-old director, whose last film was Draft Day with Kevin Costner, is producing the next Ghostbusters film.
Reunited with her Alien director, Ridley Scott, she’s Ramses’ mother in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Weaver, 65, also stars in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, due in March, and is filming A Monster Calls for J.A. Bayona. Oh, and there are those Avatar sequels lurking.