Who Would Punch Rick Moranis?

Rick Moranis (b. 1953) has re-emerged in the news lately following a long absence, and not in a way any of us would have wished for him. He was attacked by someone who apparently doesn’t like mild-mannered hilarious comedians. Fortunately, the perp was caught thanks to CCTV footage; it appears to have been an entirely random act of violence. Moranis just happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just the sort of thing that might have happened to one of his characters.

Unlike most of his fellow SCTV cast members, Moranis did not come out of the Second City pipeline. He started out as a local radio DJ in his native Toronto, using the pseudonym “Rick Allen” (his given name is Frederick Allen Moranis). His half dozen or so years in radio is wonderful backgrounder for his SCTV character Gerry Todd, a favorite of mine among his unique repertoire, for he nailed a certain glib, smooth insincere quality that most successful broadcasters have. The character was a veejay, a guy who spun music videos, a job which didn’t exist when he debuted it, but was the hottest thing in the nation (via MTV) by the time he put it to bed. Moranis had begun performing comedy sketches with various partners on radio and at live events since the mid ’70s. By 1980 he was invited to join the cast of the already popular CBC show SCTV, and remained with the show when it went to NBC the following year. With him he brought tons of amazing impressions, lots of celebrities whom nobody else, which was one of the things that made SCTV so special: he played David Brinkley, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Woody Allen, and others. I was especially a fan of his take on Griffin, which captured all of his fatuous and obsequious mannerisms. With Brinkley and Cavett he exaggarated their soporific, understated qualities. This was smart, subtle stuff.

But naturally, it was his more low-brow, slapstick material that proved most crowd-pleasing. A small man in glasses, Moranis ended up playing all the hapless shlemiels on the show, a niche as useful as that occupied by John Candy as SCTV’s resident large man. He became most popular as part of a team with Dave Thomas, as a couple of beer-swilling backwoods Canucks named Bob and Doug McKenzie, Thus he launched his movie career in 1983 with the hilarious Strange Brew. This was followed up by a role in Walter Hill’s now-forgotten (not by me though) Streets of Fire (1984), in which he played one of the countless Jewish agents in his resume, an antagonist to the even-more-forgotten Michael Pare, who was then well-known from Eddie and the Cruisers. It was a high concept rock musical action film, tailor made for MTV, but it didn’t make back its costs, mostly because Pare was sort of a black hole on screen. But after this, Moranis struck pay dirt. His third film was the monster hit Ghostbusters (1984), which led to a bunch of other high-visibility stuff: the lead in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Mel Brook’s Spaceballs (1987), Ghostbusters II (1989), Honey I Shrunk the KIds and its sequels (1989-1997), and three movies with Steve Martin: Parenthood (1989), My Blue Heaven (1990), and L.A. Story (1991). He was also in Hill’s remake of Brewster’s Millions (1985) with Richard Pryor, Harold Ramis’s all-star Club Paradise (1986), and the family football comedy Little Giants (1994) with Ed O’Neill of Married with Children, among other things.

The live-action version of The Flintstones (1994) with John Goodman (in which Moranis played Barney Rubble) was a memorable critical and box office disaster. This was bad timing, because it was actually unrelated to Moranis’s premature retirement from films. Moranis’s wife of five years Ann Belsky had died of cancer in early 1991, leaving him with two very small children to raise. He left movies to raise his kids, whom he couldn’t stand to be separated from. Lord knows he had enough money in the kitty from his acting career, so that’s what he did. Every so often he popped his head up and participated in public events related to his past films, and he’s also made a few comedy records. But mostly he has been a dad — one who neither shrinks nor blows up his kids. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where people spot him all the time, just going about his business, as though he hadn’t been a millionaire movie star. This, naturally, is why some random dude could just step up and punch him. It’s hard to punch a guy in the back of a limo. But that’s not everybody’s style.

For more on entertainment history, including TV variety please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.