Ivan Reitman, the influential filmmaker and producer behind many of the most beloved comedies of the late 20th century, from Animal House to Ghostbusters, has died. He was 75.
Reitman died peacefully in his sleep Saturday night at his home in Montecito, Calif., his family told The Associated Press.
“Our family is grieving the unexpected loss of a husband, father, and grandfather who taught us to always seek the magic in life,” children Jason Reitman, Catherine Reitman and Caroline Reitman said in a joint statement. “We take comfort that his work as a filmmaker brought laughter and happiness to countless others around the world. While we mourn privately, we hope those who knew him through his films will remember him always.”
Known for bawdy comedies that caught the spirit of their time, Reitman’s big break came with the raucous, college fraternity sendup National Lampoon’s Animal House, which he produced. He directed Bill Murray in his first starring role in the summer camp flick Meatballs, and then again in 1981’s Stripes, but his most significant success came with 1984’s Ghostbusters.
Not only did the irreverent supernatural comedy starring Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis gross nearly $300 million worldwide, it earned two Oscar nominations, spawned a veritable franchise, including spinoffs, television shows and a new movie, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, that opened this last year. His son, filmmaker Jason Reitman, directed.
Paul Feig, who directed the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters tweeted that he was in shock.
“I had the honor of working so closely with Ivan and it was always such a learning experience,” Feig wrote. “He directed some of my favorite comedies of all time. All of us in comedy owe him so very much.”
“A legend,” comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani said on Twitter. “The number of great movies he made is absurd.”
“Ivan Reitman’s movies cultivated our taste for anarchic comedy, the sweetest of friendships and a beautiful way of looking at the world that made everything seem possible,” Cameron Bailey, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, wrote in a statement.
Among other notable films he directed are Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave, Junior and 1998’s Six Days, Seven Nights. He also produced Beethoven, Old School and EuroTrip, and many others, including his son’s Oscar-nominated film Up in the Air.
Reitman was born in Komarno, Czechoslovakia, in 1946 where his father owned the country’s biggest vinegar factory. His mother had survived Auschwitz and his father was in the resistance. When the communists began imprisoning capitalists after the war, the Reitmans decided to escape, when Ivan was only four. They travelled in the nailed-down hold of a barge headed for Vienna.
“I remember flashes of scenes,” Reitman told the Associated Press in 1979. “Later they told me about how they gave me a couple of sleeping pills so I wouldn’t make any noise. I was so knocked out that I slept with my eyes open. My parents were afraid I was dead.”
The Reitmans joined a relative in Toronto, where Ivan displayed his show biz inclinations: starting a puppet theatre, entertaining at summer camps, playing coffee houses with a folk music group. He studied music and drama at McMaster University in Hamilton, and began making movie shorts.
With friends and $12,000, Reitman made a nine-day movie, Cannibal Girls, which American International agreed to release. He produced, on a $500 budget, a weekly TV revue, Greed, with Dan Aykroyd, and became associated with the Lampoon group in its off-Broadway revue that featured John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Murray. That soon led to Animal House.
Reitman seized the moment after Animal House’s massive success and raised money to direct Meatballs, which would be tamer than the hard-R Animal House.
He hand-picked Murray to star, which would prove to be a significant break for the comedian, but Ramis later said that Reitman didn’t know if Murray would actually show up until the first day of the shoot. But it was the beginning of a fruitful and long-running partnership that would produce the war comedy Stripes, which Reitman said he thought up on the way to the Meatballs premiere, and Ghostbusters.
Reitman also put Schwarzenegger in his first major comedy, opposite Danny DeVito in Twins. There was such uncertainty around the project that all forfeited their fees for a share of the profits, which would prove to be a lucrative deal when the film earned $216 million against an $18-million production budget. In September 2021, it was announced that a sequel, Triplets was in the works, with Reitman directing his original cast, plus Tracy Morgan as their long lost brother.
By the time 1990’s Kindergarten Cop came around, Reitman had established himself as the most successful comedy director in history. Though not even being the father of three children could have prepared him for the arduous task of directing 30 children between the ages of four and seven in the Schwarzenegger comedy.
The political comedy Dave, starring Kevin Kline as an ordinary man who has to double for the U.S. president, provided a bit of a departure for Reitman. Roger Ebert wrote at the time that “the movie is more proof that it isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it: Ivan Reitman’s direction and Gary Ross’s screenplay use intelligence and warm-hearted sentiment to make Dave into wonderful lighthearted entertainment.”
Reitman slowed down as a director after Six Days, Seven Nights, the 1998 adventure comedy with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche — only four films would follow: Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached and Draft Day.
But he continued producing. His company, the Montecito Picture Co., produced Todd Phillips’s first movie, Road Trip. And with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Reitman even found himself on the press circuit with his son, providing emotional moments for both with the passing of the baton. Jason Reitman, who was only seven when the original came out, included some nods to his father’s films, like Beethoven and Cannibal Girls, in Afterlife.
“Directing Ghostbusters: Afterlife was completely intimidating,” Jason Reitman said last year. “I was lucky enough to do it sitting next to my dad.”
When asked why the 1984 film continued to fascinate, Reitman told the Associated Press that it was hard to define.
“I always had a sort of sincere approach to the comedy,” he said. “I took it seriously even though, it was a horror movie and a comedy, I felt you had to sort of deal with it in a kind of realistic and honest way.”
He always took comedy and the power of laughter seriously.
“The great cliché is about how damn tough comedy is. But of course, nobody really gives that any respect,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “It’s such a visceral thing, laughing. So getting to the point where you can get an audience of 600 people laughing is really precise and intricate work. … My sense is we’re laughing at the same things we’ve always laughed at, but the language of the filmmaker and the performer shifts.”