Ivan Reitman, producer of National Lampoon’s Animal House who later shot to fame as director of Ghostbusters – obituary

Ivan Reitman on the set of Dave, his 1993 film about a presidential stand-in - Album/Alamy
Ivan Reitman on the set of Dave, his 1993 film about a presidential stand-in - Album/Alamy

Ivan Reitman, who has died aged 75, was a film director and producer known for the comedy hit Ghostbusters (1984), which was nominated for two Oscars; he also secured Oscar and Bafta nominations for producing Up in the Air (2009), directed by his son Jason and starring George Clooney as an emotionally detached management consultant who travels around America firing employees for his corporate clients.

Reitman had enjoyed some succès de scandale with student cinema when he got his first big breaks with a handful of high-jinks comedies that caught the decidedly un-PC spirit of the times. He produced National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), the cult classic that introduced John Belushi to American filmgoers and is credited with popularising the student toga party, and directed the boisterous Meatballs (1979), starring Bill Murray as a trainee counsellor at a chaotic summer camp that was partly inspired by Reitman’s own 12 years of attending summer camps in Ontario.

However, it was the special effects-laden Ghostbusters, with its surreal blend of comedy, action and horror, as well as a Bafta-winning No 1 theme song by Ray Parker Jnr, that propelled Reitman into the cinematic stratosphere. The premise is that three eccentric scientists (played by Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) lose their jobs at a New York university and decide to become professional “ghostbusters”, offering a paranormal search-and-destroy service from their headquarters in a former fire station.

Their first client is Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), a professional cellist who fends off amorous advances from Murray’s character. With the city increasingly under threat from pesky ghosts, spirits and poltergeists, including the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the ghostbusters save the day by finding and closing the gateway through which they entered.

Ghostbusters was a box-office success, taking $282 million during its initial run, making it the second-highest grossing film in the US and Canada in 1984 after Martin Brest’s police action-comedy Beverly Hills Cop. A sequel, Ghostbusters II (1989), in which they reunite to tackle a new paranormal threat, had been expected to replicate that success, but was seen by many critics as little more than a watered-down copy of the original.

Reitman, meanwhile, had been exploring other avenues, and in 1988 cast Arnold Schwarzenegger with Danny DeVito in Twins, later telling how he first met the Terminator star in a ski lodge. “I didn’t know him,” Reitman told Canadian television. “He just comes up to me and says ‘You’re the Ghostbusters guy, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Y’know, I could be a ghostbuster’.” They were reunited when Schwarzenegger played a police officer masquerading as a preschool teacher to apprehend a drug dealer in Kindergarten Cop (1990).

L-r, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters - Columbia Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
L-r, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters - Columbia Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Reitman’s subsequent films included the canine comedy Beethoven (1992); Dave (1993), starring Kevin Kline as an “ordinary Joe” from Baltimore who gets more than he bargains for after being recruited as a stand-in for the US president; Evolution (2001), another comedy about scientists saving the world, this time from a fast-evolving organism; and No Strings Attached (2011), with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher trying to keep emotions out of their physical relationship.

Not all his films were an instant success and some British critics dismissed his work as one-joke movies, yet Reitman could afford to be relaxed. “Sometimes it does take a little bit of time, and a film requires more careful viewing,” he said of the rush to instant judgment. “I’ve been lucky enough to really make films that audiences have loved over the years, and so I get to keep doing it.”

Ivan Reitman was born in Komárno, a predominantly ethnic Hungarian town in Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), on October 27 1946. His mother, Klara, had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp while his father, Ladislav “Leslie” Reitman, had fought with the underground resistance. After the war he started a small vinegar factory that in 1948 was seized by the new Communist regime.

With Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Twins - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
With Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Twins - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

His mother bribed a Yugoslav tugboat man to smuggle them out of the country. They were hidden under the deck, and Reitman recalled the boards being nailed into place above them. “Later they told me about how they gave me a couple of sleeping pills so I wouldn’t make any noise,” he said. “I was so knocked out that I slept with my eyes open. My parents were afraid I was dead.” After five days the boards were pulled up and the family emerged on deck to find themselves just outside Vienna.

They joined a relative in Canada, where Reitman was educated at Oakwood Collegiate, Toronto, and began to demonstrate his interest in showbusiness, starting a puppet theatre and playing with a folk-music group. He was a member of the Twintone Four singing group and studied Music at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

It had a thriving campus arts scene, including a prestigious annual festival that attracted guests such as Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Before long he had produced a student version of the Broadway musical Li’l Abner and was president of the university’s film board. At the age of 21 he talked his way on to a Canadian National Film Board course, where he got his hands on a camera and some film.

Directing Robin Williams in Father's Day, 1997 - Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
Directing Robin Williams in Father's Day, 1997 - Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

His first short was Orientation (1968), a 30-minute comedy starring Dan Goldberg as a new student who meets a beautiful girl while finding his way around campus and chases her with a camera. The following year Reitman and Goldberg were fined Can$300 and given a year’s probation for publishing obscene material in their co-production of The Columbus of Sex, based on the notorious Victorian pornographic memoir My Secret Life.

It was the first Canadian film to be banned by the Ontario Censor Board, though perhaps predictably notoriety did wonders both at the box office and for Reitman’s reputation. Even while his appeal against conviction was being heard he was engaged to direct his debut feature film, My Foxy Lady (1971), about the richest girl in the world falling in love with a superhero.

A stint as producer at City-TV, a new television station in Toronto where he produced the variety show Greed featuring Dan Aykroyd, lasted less than a year before he was fired by the station’s owner. He continued making B-grade sex-and-horror flicks, many of them financed by his parents’ friends, including Cannibal Girls (1975), a tasteless tongue-in-cheek tale of a small Ontario town that finds a solution to the national meat shortage, which did surprisingly well.

Meanwhile, he was beginning to develop a career in the theatre, producing Doug Henning’s The Magic Show, which enjoyed a successful run in Canada, and rescuing The National Lampoon Show, which he injected with more theatre and took to New York. After producing a couple of David Cronenberg’s early horror creations, Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), he got into his stride with Animal House, which was shot in 34 days. “Speed creates spontaneity, especially when you’re dealing with wild comedy,” he observed.

The Ghostbusters franchise was later resurrected by a new generation, starting with the all-female reboot, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), directed by Paul Feig in which Reitman had a cameo part, though it lost more than $70 million. His son Jason directed Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021), which has been nominated for an award in next month’s Baftas. Reitman Snr was not only producer but also used digital make-up to replace Ramis, who had died in 2014.

A slender man with dark, amused eyes and amiably vulpine features, Ivan Reitman lived in Santa Barbara, California. He established the Montecito Picture Company, through which he produced Sacha Gervasi’s biopic Hitchcock (2012) starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, and directed the Kevin Costner sports drama Draft Day (2014).

In 1976 he married Geneviève Robert, who converted to Judaism. She survives him with their son Jason and their two daughters, Catherine, an actress and producer, and Caroline, an actress.

Ivan Reitman, born October 27 1946, died February 12 2022