[Popular film critic Roger Ebert died Wednesday, April 4, 2013, at age 70. Here's our tribute to him]
By Chuck Ross
I didn’t know Roger Ebert well. I used to run into him – and his then TV sparring partner, Gene Siskel – every so often at studio press screenings in Los Angeles years ago, when I worked for The Hollywood Reporter. And I would see both of them when I went to Promax, where they would host the awards for creative promos. Roger was very approachable, and since I also love movies, I always had something to talk to him about. And he never seemed to tire talking about movies. I know a number of broadcasters who also came to know Ebert through those Promax appearances.
But like most of you, I feel I best came to know Ebert from his TV shows. Back on Jan. 24, 2005, we here at TelevisionWeek had the pleasure of bestowing upon Ebert our Lifetime Achievement Award in the category of TV syndication. Though Ebert had first been diagnosed with cancer in 2002, it wasn’t until 2006 that he had the major surgery that removed part of his jaw. So at the time of our honoring him it was during the period he was reviewing movies on TV with film critic Richard Roeper, who had replaced Siskel after Gene died.
Roeper was kind enough, for that 2005 salute to Ebert, to pen for us an essay about his TV partner. With Richard’s permission, here’s that piece once again:
Roeper Knows the Real Ebert
by Richard Roeper
Virtually every day for the past five years, I’ve been asked the same two questions:
"Where do you get your shoes?"
What’s it like to work with Roger Ebert?"
The answer to question No. 1 is that I don’t "get" them anywhere, all right, pal? I make them. I’m a part-time cobbler and I’m proud of it, and I’m tired of pretending that I buy my shoes retail.
As for question No. 2 — what it’s like to work alongside the most famous and accomplished movie critic the world has ever known — I usually put on a brave face and say something like, "Oh, it’s nothing but sunshine and balloons every moment we’re in the same room together."
That always seems to satisfy the questioner.
Only one problem: It’s a lie.
Let me tell you what it’s really like to work with Mr. Roger Ebert.
First of all, his behavior in our Chicago screening room is beyond belief. Even though there are about 50 seats in the theater, he insists on sitting right behind me and kicking the seat for hours at a time, usually as he hums "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." When I turn to shoot him a nasty look, he flicks a kernel of popcorn at me, laughs uproariously and says, "I’m sorry, does that bother you?"
That’s usually about the time Ebert’s cellphone goes off. (His ringer is the theme from "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.")
Here’s something else you wouldn’t expect: The guy constantly talks back to the screen during the movie. Typical comments:
"Aw, hell no!"
"Oh come on, that would never happen! Who wrote this crap!"
"He’s under the bed, girlfriend. Why don’t you look under the bed!!!"
"I thought that guy was the cousin. Is he the boyfriend or the cousin? This movie is giving me a headache."
As for Ebert’s behavior on taping day, let’s just say that showing up three hours late in a velour sweat suit and insisting that everyone in the crew call him "Doctor Thumb" is not my idea of professional behavior. And it’s a good thing the show isn’t live, because the language-well, let’s just say that the language would make Tarantino blush.
Enough with the pseudo-Friars Club routine. The truth is, I can kid like that about Roger because anyone who has ever worked with him in any capacity — and for that matter, anyone who has attended one of his classes or exchanged e-mails with him about the movies or even stopped him on the street to discuss what Bill Murray says to Scarlett Johansson at the end of "Lost in Translation" — knows that Roger Ebert is a class act.
Whether he’s telling one of his famously corny jokes, filling the room with his passion for political debate or casually relating a personal anecdote that co-stars Nicole Kidman, Clint Eastwood or Groucho Marx, Roger’s thirst for life is infectious. And when he champions a film such as "Million Dollar Baby" or "Monster," the man is a runaway train of enthusiasm. To see him get so excited about a film after so many years and so many movies is inspirational.
What’s it like to work with Roger Ebert?
An absolute blast. A privilege. And an honor.#
In that same 2005 salute to Ebert, Alex Ben Block, then our TVWeek editor, did a terrific interview with Ebert. How good was it? Well, today, April 4, 2013, in The New York Times obituary about Ebert, they quote from it. If you click here you can read Alex’s insightful interview in full. And by the way, Alex is still writing wonderful pieces, now for The Hollywood Reporter.
I would also urge you to read a very perceptive profile of Ebert, by Chris Jones, from 2010, in Esquire magazine. Click here to find it. When Alex Ben Block spoke to Ebert in 2005, it was by phone, and Ebert was in Paris.
Interestingly, Ebert references that trip in this thought about dying quoted in Jones’ Esquire article:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.”I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
Finally, I urge everyone to go see a movie in honor of Ebert. I suggest one of his favorites from last year – it’s also a movie I’ve been recommending to friends lately. It’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” which recently won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. If you can’t find it on-demand or at your local video store, you can buy it through Amazon or watch it through Amazon’s streaming service. It’s got a great many surprises and is one of those films which is most impressive the less you know what it’s about before you see it. Suffice to say that Ebert called it “miraculous and inspiring."
Which are the two words I’d use to describe Roger Ebert.#
Roger Ebert 1942-2013