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Ivan Reitman in Toronto in 2016.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Quick: Name the most influential Canadian filmmaker of all time. There are a good number of candidates, with varying degrees of “Canadian-ness,” to put forward. But there is a decent and perhaps surprising case to be made for Ivan Reitman.

The director, who died in his sleep over the weekend at the age of 75, will forever be known to most as the man behind Ghostbusters, an eighties slobs vs. snobs lark that spawned one of the longest-running entertainment franchises in history, not to mention a property that sparked at least one major cultural war. But Mr. Reitman, born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Toronto, was over the course of his remarkable career also responsible for not only shaping, and reshaping, the Hollywood comedy, but for helping mould the identities of everyone from Howard Stern to David Cronenberg to Toronto itself.

Crudely breaking his life down, there are three Ivan Reitmans.

The first is the filmmaker who found himself at the centre of contemporary comedy. First and most critically, he was on the front lines of breaking in the Baby Boomer generation’s concept of what a comedy ought to be – let’s call it the National Lampoon’ing of a genre – by producing 1978′s Animal House, then directing and writing 1981′s Stripes.

A few years later, Mr. Reitman was layering that rebellious, middle-finger-first sensibility underneath the demands, and rewards, of bigger stars, bigger budgets and bigger high-concept ideas. The centre piece is, of course, the sensationally strange success of 1984′s Ghostbusters, a demented Saturday Night Live skit writ large that was infused with the hysteria of H.P. Lovecraft fan-fiction and the laconic wit of Mr. Reitman’s close collaborator Bill Murray. Ghostbusters worked so well because it shouldn’t have worked at all, subsequently warping big-screen comedies for decades to come. A legacy that includes Mr. Reitman’s own late-eighties/early-nineties string of runaway hits, which any comedy filmmaker would kill for today: Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Dave, Junior.

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Reitman attends the premiere of Ghostbusters: Afterlife at AMC Lincoln Square 13 in New York, on Nov. 15, 2021.Evan Agostini/The Associated Press

Jump a decade ahead, and Mr. Reitman was the one recognizing – or was it feeding? – the cruder, ruder curve: producing Howard Stern’s pseudo-biopic Private Parts, plus helping make Road Trip, Old School and EuroTrip, three movies that comprise a veritable frat-house vision-board of early-aught humour (and which neatly renovate Animal House‘s original appeal).

Today, mainstream studios have all but abandoned big-screen comedies – even Judd Apatow’s next movie is headed for Netflix. But back when comedy actually mattered to Hollywood – when the world’s funniest movie star could be Bill Murray one year, Arnold Schwarzenegger the next – Mr. Reitman’s instincts and influence could be felt in almost every corner of comic culture.

Ivan Reitman's five most essential films, and where to stream them

The second Ivan Reitman, meanwhile, is the slick Canuxploitation king: a filmmaker who found a niche just before and during the heights of the country’s tax-shelter era – a brief moment in time between 1977 and 1982 when a loophole called the Capital Cost Allowance sparked a mini-boom in no-frills Canadian productions – to help birth a delightfully sleazy run of Cancon touchstones that propelled careers both high and low.

Mr. Reitman produced a controversial slasher (1976′s Death Weekend), an immortal sexploitation flick (1977′s Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia), two early and essential David Cronenberg films (1975′s Shivers and 1977′s Rabid), while also directing inarguably the best summer camp comedy of all time (1979′s Meatballs). At the time, these movies were reviled, held up by certain members of the Canadian establishment as proof that vulgarians lived among us and operated with our own tax dollars to boot. But nearly half a century later, they stand as gnarly testaments to that most necessary quality of Canadian filmmakers: stubborn, defiant persistence.

In-the-know audiences of Ghostbusters: Afterlife will also notice that one scene features a cinema’s marquee advertising Cannibal Girls, the 1973 Beaverton, Ont.- shot grindhouse exercise, predating the tax-shelter era proper but certainly anticipating it, which Mr. Reitman co-wrote and directed. (Always with an eye for comic talent, Mr. Reitman filled Cannibal Girls with pre-SCTV players Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin.)

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Producers Matty Simmons, left, and Reitman on the set of National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978.

Finally, the third Ivan Reitman is the one who basically built the modern iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival. Not as a programmer or an executive, but in a more literal sense: the ground upon which TIFF’s Lightbox headquarters sits in downtown Toronto was once the site of a car wash operated by Mr. Reitman’s parents. Without Mr. Reitman’s family, along with home developer the Daniels Corporation, having donated the land to TIFF, there would be no Lightbox, nor perhaps TIFF as we know it today.

When crafting a tribute to artists who have died – especially, I’d argue, Canadian artists, whom this country’s writers tend to protect with a fierce devotion – it can be uncomfortable to speak critically of the subject’s work. So while there are not many sparkling things to say about Mr. Reitman’s late-career directorial efforts – movies that represent the last gasps of the big-screen comedy mega-run, including My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached and Draft Day – it would also be wrong to pretend that they don’t exist. The films were still representative, in their own ways, of Mr. Reitman’s career-long desire to see through what the next comedic swerve might be, and shape the sensibility.

That those movies didn’t land with audiences – and that Mr. Reitman’s later efforts to revive Ghostbusters proved to do so in two very different, very divisive ways – only adds to Mr. Reitman’s legacy as a filmmaker at the centre of Hollywood’s comedy nexus, in all its ups and downs.

As if we need more evidence, just look at Triplets, which Mr. Reitman was inches away from bringing to camera before his death, and his first film as a director since 2014′s Draft Day. The three-decades-later Twins sequel would have reunited Mr. Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito while adding Tracy Morgan to the mix. It might have been great, it might have been … not so great. But there is no doubt as to why Mr. Reitman thought he could be the one to make the project – big stars, big nostalgia, ostensibly big laughs – click.

For each one of the three Ivan Reitmans, confidence – in both himself and where the market was heading – was key. His influence and his instincts will forever be tied to the history of comedy, and to when audiences lined up in droves to laugh together in one big, dark room.

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