Anyone born before the 1980s – and probably most of those who weren’t – are unlikely to have escaped watching a Rick Moranis film. The comedian played the go-to anxious nerd in some of the decade’s best-known blockbusters. However, a terrible event made him turn his back on the big screen.
The first of these movies was to send shockwaves through popular culture to this day. In 1984’s Ghostbusters, Moranis starred as Louis Tully, accountant and resident of an apartment block plagued by ghosts. Unwittingly, he himself becomes possessed by a malignant spirit.
Then, Moranis starred alongside John Candy in Brewster’s Millions in 1985, before taking on a role in sci-fi romp Spaceballs in 1987. Moranis played evil Dark Helmet, a comic reworking of Darth Vader. Then, two years later, he was to star in not one but two smash-hit movies which were to cement his name as an actor.
In these, Moranis was cast in the slightly hapless dad role. In Parenthood, the star played an intense father hothousing his only child (to his wife’s despair). Whereas in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, his part was as the less uptight – but still geeky – patriarch who utters the immortal line.
The last big movie in which Moranis was to appear was the 1994 big-screen version of The Flintstones. The comic actor took on the role of Barney Rubble, made famous in the 1960’s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, as the neighbor of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. After this, however, Moranis seemed to all but disappear.
However, to describe Moranis only as an actor is something of a misnomer. His background was as a stand-up comedian and sketch artist. Acting seems to be something he fell into rather than a career direction which he actively sought in its own right.
The Canadian star was born in Toronto, to a Jewish family of Hungarian descent. His career path started when he was a DJ on Toronto radio, before he progressed to making appearances on Canadian radio and TV sketch shows. With comic partner Ken Finkleman, he performed skits poking fun at his home country.
But it was to be with his comedian compadre, Dave Thomas, that he was really able to tap into comedy gold. Thomas invited Moranis to appear on Canadian show Second City Television (SCTV) in 1980. When the show was syndicated to the U.S., the pair were asked to create two extra minutes of content to please Canadian audiences.
And so the duo created the characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. The fictional brothers were farcical Canadian stereotypes, who featured on a spoof talk show called “The Great White North.” They wore winter jackets and hats, and discussed important issues of the day such as why American beer had twist-off tops.
Despite being mainly improvised and filmed when everyone else had left after the main show, the “brothers” were a hit. So well-received did the segment prove, in fact, that they were asked to fill a two-minute slot on every show. They became popular in both the U.S. and Canada.
Not only that, but they created a music album, Great White North, which was nominated for a Grammy. A feature film called Strange Brew was to follow in 1983, where the brothers foil an evil plot at a beer factory. It was to be the start of Moranis’s movie career.
From then on, hit after hit came his way. First up was Ghostbusters, where he starred alongside Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. Set in New York City, the movie centered around three parapsychologists and their ghost hunting set-up.
The movie hit theaters in June 1984, and was a critical and audience smash. It grossed $282.2 million during its first release, earning it the title of the highest grossing comedy of all time to that juncture. Hoping to replicate its success, a sequel followed in 1989 in which Moranis also starred. Ghostbusters II, however, wasn’t to replicate either the appeal or the commercial success of the first.
Moranis’ character of Louis Tully was based on a character from SCTV. Although the movie turned into a cultural phenomenon, at the time of filming he was able to have more creative input than in later years. This former approach, however, seemed to be the way he most enjoyed making movies.
He said in an interview with Sound & Vision magazine in 2004: “On the last couple of movies I made – big-budget Hollywood movies – I really missed being able to create my own material. In the early movies I did, I was brought in basically to rewrite my stuff, whether it was Ghostbusters or Spaceballs.
He continued, “By the time I got to the point where I was “starring” in movies, and I had executives telling me what lines to say, that wasn’t for me. I’m really not an actor. I’m a guy who comes out of comedy, and my impetus was always to rewrite the line to make it funnier, not to try to make somebody’s precious words work.”
The cult 1986 remake of Little Shop of Horrors was a smaller movie with a budget of just $25 million. But this may have been part of its appeal. Cast as the nerdy florist who has to satisfy the demands of an insatiable blood-devouring plant, he acted alongside buddies Steve Martin and John Candy, as well as Ghostbusters co-star Bill Murray.
And, as stated above, he enjoyed filming the 1987 release Spaceballs, too. The Star Wars-inspired farce was written, produced, directed by and starring Mel Brooks. He appeared alongside Bill Pullman and once again, his long-time friend since SCTV days, John Candy.
Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and Parenthood were both released in 1989. But by now he perhaps began to feel like he was losing the creative control he’d talked about. The movies achieved great commercial success, with the former becoming such a cinematic juggernaut that it has so far spawned two more movies and a TV series; work started on a third movie sequel in 2019.
In Parenthood, his role was of the brother-in-law of Steve Martin’s leading patriarch. The role played to his strengths – portraying an intense nerd – and his friendship with Martin made the collaboration a familiar one. In fact, he was one of the friends invited to Martin’s surprise wedding in 2007, alongside Eugene Levy and Tom Hanks.
Indeed, the following year, 1990, Moranis and Martin were to co-star again, this time in mobster comedy My Blue Heaven. It wasn’t to set the movie world on fire though, and The New York Times newspaper described it as “disappointing.” Moranis had a couple more hits up his sleeve, however.
In 1994 Moranis became Barney Rubble in a movie remake of The Flintstones. With a shock of blonde hair, his prehistoric character was married to Betty, played by Rosie O’Donnell. Although not well received by critics, the film was a smash at the box office, earning more than $340m worldwide.
But behind the scenes, Moranis was battling family heartache. He had married Ann Belsky, a costume designer, in 1986, and they had two children together. Fiercely protective of his family life, Moranis has shied away from revealing their names in interviews.
Tragically, in February 1991 Belsky died of breast cancer. Moranis was left to raise his two children alone as a single father. He was to find that traveling around for movie roles became impractical; as a loving father, he wanted to be with his kids.
This desire to be a good parent, on top of a growing disillusionment with Hollywood and frustration over comedic input into his roles, led Moranis to pull back from making movies. He declined work that would take him too far away. His final hit movie, Brother Bear in 2003, was to be a voiceover role that he recorded close to home.
Nonetheless, the comedian objects to being referred to as “retired” from Hollywood. In fact, Moranis told The Hollywood Reporter magazine in 2015 that he would like that citation removed from his Wikipedia page. He confessed, however, that he didn’t know how to go about doing it.
It’s true that he has been largely absent from acting in movie roles since 1997. But he sees his time off as more of an extended hiatus. In the Hollywood Reporter interview he revealed that, “I took a break, which turned into a longer break, and then I found I didn’t really miss it.
“It wasn’t a formal decision,” he continued. “It began in an already-busy year where I declined a film that was being shot out of town, as the school year was beginning. But I was fortunate to be able to continue to make a living writing and doing voice work in Manhattan.”
The change, as you might expect, was a major one. “I was working with really interesting people, wonderful people,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I went from that to being at home with a couple of little kids, which is a very different lifestyle.”
With his role as a father, Moranis found a far more satisfying part to play. That’s not to say he completely withdrew from film work. Since 1997, he has provided character voices for Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys in 2001. This was followed by the voicing of moose Rutt in $250 million blockbuster Brother Bear in 2003, and Brother Bear II in 2006.
Other jobs have included commercials and work as a wry contributor to The New York Times (in one op-ed piece he admits, “I have time on my hands”). He’s also recorded country and comedy albums The Agoraphobic Cowboy and My Mother’s Brisket, and done charity work.
Taking time to focus on his family is not a decision Moranis would change. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “It was important to me. I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever. My life is wonderful.” Given that at the time of the interview he was living in a big apartment on the Upper West Side in New York and picking and choosing work, it’s hard to argue.
Now Moranis’s kids are older, however, his refusal of Hollywood parts seems to be more rooted in disillusionment with the industry rather than just for practical purposes. The actor was recently invited to star as a cameo in the 2016 all-female remake of Ghostbusters. But it didn’t happen.
Remember, Moranis was the only original actor to appear in both of the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids sequels. But this time he was less keen to reprise a successful role. The comedian refused, notwithstanding the fact that former co-stars Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver and Dan Aykroyd all took part.
He said in The Hollywood Reporter interview beforehand, “I wish them well. I hope it’s terrific. But it just makes no sense to me. Why would I do just one day of shooting on something I did 30 years ago?” Why, indeed?
He makes clear that he is not against starring in a movie role per se. It’s just that one hasn’t come along in over two decades that takes his fancy. Even though he’s still recognized in the street, he’s become very selective about movie roles.
“I’m interested in anything that I would find interesting. I still get the occasional query about a film or television role, and as soon as one comes along that piques my interest, I’ll probably do it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. He added that Ghostbusters “didn’t appeal to me”.
Moranis remains a well-loved figure, and his name still commands a great deal of respect within the comedy circuit. Saturday Night Live TV star Fred Armisen responded on being asked about his dream collaboration, “You know who I haven’t seen in a long time? Rick Moranis.”
The comedian turned occasional actor is by all accounts a good guy, and popular with his peers. He attended fellow Canadian, longtime friend and collaborator John Candy’s funeral in 1994. George Wyner, co-star in Spaceballs, said, “He’s more than a funny actor, he’s very creative.”
Despite his family tragedy and career hiatus, Moranis is philosophical about the direction his life took. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “Stuff happens to people all the time, and people make adjustments, change careers, move to another city. Really, that’s all I did.”