Roeper Knows the Real Ebert

Jan 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Editor’s note: We asked “Ebert & Roeper” co-star Richard Roeper to write about what it’s like working with his legendary onscreen partner. He agreed, and sent a piece that’s partly in jest and totally from the heart.

Special to TelevisionWeek

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. n

When he’s not co-hosting Buena Vista’s popular syndicated movie review show “Ebert & Roeper,” Richard Roeper writes books and cobbles together newspaper columns for the Chicago Sun-Times.