Harold Ramis Dies at 69

02/24/2014 at 12:30 PM EST

Harold Ramis
Harold Ramis
Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

Filmmaker Harold Ramis, who exerted a strong creative hand in such popular comedies as National Lampoon's Animal House, the Ghostbusters series and Groundhog Day, has died in Chicago of a rare autoimmune disease, PEOPLE has confirmed.

His wife, Erica Mann Ramis, told the Chicago Tribune he was surrounded by family when he died at 12:53 a.m. Monday.

An actor, writer, director, producer and a gentleman – whose dry wit, long face and eyeglasses often had him compared to the legendary 1930s playwright George S. Kaufman, a compliment Ramis enjoyed – Ramis was born in Chicago and grew up idolizing the Marx Brothers, Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs.

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1967, he became the jokes editor for Playboy magazine.

Two years later he joined the improvisational comedy troupe Second City, which at the time featured such young talents as John Belushi and Bill Murray. In the mid-1970s, he wrote and acted on SCTV with John Candy and Eugene Levy.

"The moment I knew I wouldn't be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time," he told the Tribune in 1999. "When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh or to make a point on stage, the language he would use, how physical he was, throwing himself literally off the stage, taking big falls, strangling other actors, I thought: I'm never going to be this big."

But he proved he could write, and, later, direct. Ramis's first hit screenplay was Animal House, then he directed Murray in Caddyshack. From that point on he could basically write his own ticket.

In Ghostbusters, he played Dr. Egon Spengler, the intellectual. More recently, he played the father of the Seth Rogen character in 2007's Knocked Up.

Erica Mann Ramis, his wife since 1989, survives him, along with their two sons, Julian and Daniel, and a daughter from his first marriage (to Anne Plotkin), Violet Ramis.

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