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'Ghostbusters' director and 'Animal House' producer Ivan Reitman has died

Ivan Reitman died over the weekend, his family said. The director is seen here last year at the premiere for <em>Ghostbusters: Afterlife, </em>a sequel to his 1984 film<em>.</em>
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Sony Pictures
Ivan Reitman died over the weekend, his family said. The director is seen here last year at the premiere for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a sequel to his 1984 film.

Gifted comedy director and producer Ivan Reitman — who directed Ghostbusters and Twins and produced Space Jam and National Lampoon's Animal House — has died at 75.

"Our family is grieving the unexpected loss of a husband, father and grandfather who taught us to always seek the magic in life," Reitman's children Jason, Catherine and Caroline said, according to The Associated Press.

Reitman died in his sleep on Saturday at his home in Montecito, Calif., his family said.

In his long and successful career, Reitman didn't garner a mantle full of Hollywood's most prestigious awards — a common fate for comedy. But his films were wildly popular, and they created iconic moments for well-loved actors such as John Belushi and Bill Murray.

"We take comfort that his work as a filmmaker brought laughter and happiness to countless others around the world," Reitman's children said. "While we mourn privately, we hope those who knew him through his films will remember him always."

Reitman was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946. He grew up in Canada, where his family emigrated to escape oppression under Communism. He began directing and producing short films while he was a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His colleagues there included comedian Eugene Levy.

"In Toronto, he produced the stage production Spellbound which evolved into The Magic Show. It played on Broadway for five years," his bio at McMaster says. "His off–Broadway hit The National Lampoon Show subsequently led to his film National Lampoon's Animal House, produced in 1978."

From early on, Reitman embraced broad humor and films that pushed the envelope of social acceptability — see for instance, his 1973 horror comedy Cannibal Girls. When he was still a college student, Reitman co-produced the film Columbus of Sex, which resulted in his and others' arrest for its explicit content.

"They were the first Canadians convicted under Canada's decency laws, despite widespread critical acclaim and support from the arts community," according to Canadian website En Primeur.

Reitman's college experience also gave him ideas for his early film Orientation -- elements of which would later appear in Animal House. That movie contains several elements that haven't aged well. Even as the film was being made, a much-discussed segment showing white fraternity brothers visiting an all-Black club was nearly cut. From the IMDB:

"According to [director] John Landis, Universal Pictures President Ned Tanen objected so strongly to the Dexter Lake Club scene that he interrupted a screening of the film and ordered the scene be removed immediately, claiming it would cause race riots in the theaters. In response, Landis screened the film for Richard Pryor, who then wrote a note to Tanen which read: 'Ned, 'Animal House' is f***ing funny, and white people are crazy. Richard.' "

The scene stayed in the movie, but it has since been criticized for playing into racial stereotypes.

Reitman has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; he was also honored as an officer of the Order of Canada. His official citation for the latter notes that Reitman produced some of Canadian director David Cronenberg's early horror films, before going on to create comedies that became genre-defining classics.

In 2000, Reitman discussed the difference in making comedies and dramas, in an interview with The A.V. Club:

"I got more positive critical heat on a movie like Dave than I did on a movie like Ghostbusters. But Ghostbusters was a very tough movie to direct and a very tough line to walk. You're mixing genres, and there are genuine horror elements and genuine slapstick things. Dialogue things. You're playing with tone and pushing it around, juggling all this stuff at once. And that's basically ignored. But Dave—and I really like Dave, but it's very careful and narrow—was much simpler to make, really, than most of my other movies."

Part of the issue, he said, is the inherent subjectivity of comedy.

"We got some devastating reviews on Animal House at the start," Reitman told the A.V. Club. "My movie Stripes—which is actually one of my movies that has held up the best over the years—just got dismissed."

What he learned, he said, was to turn away from critics' reception and to focus on doing the best job he could, for the movie he was making.

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Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.