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If there were a Mount Rushmore of movie critics, we’d start with Roger Ebert

Updated: April 8, 2013 4:27PM



Roger would have told me to stop fretting and start writing.

After hearing the terribly sad news of the passing of my writing hero, my friend, my television partner, I sat at the keyboard and tried to come up with the perfect lead to sum up my feelings about Roger Ebert’s death.

Five, six minutes went by — an eternity when you’re on a self-imposed deadline. And all I could think of was the way Roger’s fingers just danced across the keyboard when he was writing a review or filing a story on Oscar night. It was like witnessing a musical genius on a Steinway. His fingers could barely keep up with the narrative flow he was creating on the spot.

Roger was a natural. When it was time to write, he’d sit down and start attacking that keyboard. If there’s such a thing as writer’s block, I never saw him confronted with it. He was the most prolific, the most gifted, the most dependable newspaperman I’ve ever known.

If there were a Mount Rushmore of movie critics, we’d start with Roger Ebert, and there would certainly be a place for the late Gene Siskel, and after that there would be room for plenty of debate.

But the discussion would start with Mr. Ebert.

It’s impossible to say how many directors, how many writers, how many actors were at least partially inspired to get into the business due to their exposure to “Siskel & Ebert,” and the thousands upon thousands of reviews, essays and interviews penned by Roger. All I know is, when I was with Roger at Sundance or the Toronto Film Festival or at the Oscars, it seemed as if not an hour would go by without some well-known film personality approaching to say how much they loved Roger’s work, and how much it meant to them and their families when he first mentioned their name in a review.

Shortly after I was named as the successor — I was never the replacement — to Gene Siskel, Roger and I were in New York on a press tour. We were walking through Rockefeller Plaza when a group of Japanese tourists crossed our path.

They immediately stopped, en masse, and started clicking away. Walking around with Roger was like walking around with a live-action cartoon character. People were just thrilled to see him suddenly enter their lives.

He was as famous as the biggest movie stars, as beloved in his home state as the most legendary sports figures. Roger was certainly aware of this, and he was as comfortable with his fame as anyone I’ve ever met — but it never defined him, it was never something he spent much time pondering.

The guy I spent all those hours with in the screening room, in the TV studio, at film festivals and dinners and traveling, was a guy who loved talking about his beloved wife, Chaz, and his family, a guy who loved telling stories about movie stars and the larger-than-life figures he called his friends, a guy who would wax poetic about his beloved Steak ’n’ Shake.

He was political. Everybody knew Roger was a card-carrying liberal, and he was never swayed by the chants of “Stick to movies!” Why should he stick to movies when he was as well-versed and as passionate about politics as half the elected officials in Washington?

He was corny. For years, Roger and Chaz would host massive Fourth of July parties at his home in Michigan, and Roger would always wear his wonderfully tacky American flag shirt while presiding over the karaoke contest and the barbecue and the dancing on the temporary floor installed in the backyard. You never saw him happier than when he was surrounded by family and friends.

He was kind. As a television partner, Roger was exceedingly generous. Even though he was risking the wrath of Disney for spilling the news too soon, Roger told me I had the job before Disney told me I had the job. When the news was made official, Roger took me aside and said, “This is a partnership. You’re not a guest on the Roger Ebert show. You’re my co-host. It’s a 50-50 deal.”

And so it was. We had equal time on “Ebert & Roeper.” The second time we appeared on “The Tonight Show,” Roger insisted it was my turn to take the lead and sit in the chair next to Jay, with Roger on the sofa.

The only thing better than seeing movies with Roger in the screening room on Lake Street in Chicago was talking about movies with Roger in the studio on State Street in Chicago. Years into the job, I’d be sitting there, wondering when someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to get the hell off the set. To this day, I shake my head in wonder when I look back at all the time I spent with such a great and wonderful presence.

The world lost a great voice today.



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