There was the prodigious mind, of course: the voluminous knowledge of film and the incisive way he could cut to the heart of what made a movie work, or not.
But what I’ll remember most and love best about Roger Ebert was his playful side, and an infectious enthusiasm that was astonishingly alive after decades in a business in which it would have been easy — and safe — to be cynical.
That optimism extended to every element of “Ebert Presents At the Movies,” the film review show on public television I co-hosted with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for one awesome, challenging, thrilling year in 2011. We were honored to carry on the thumbs-up, thumbs-down legacy he’d created with his longtime on-screen partner, Gene Siskel, but Roger never hovered over us as if we owed him anything. Rather, he treated us as equals and made us feel as if we were all on the same team. He worked tirelessly with his devoted wife, Chaz, to get our show on the air and keep it on for as long as possible. My heart breaks for Chaz today; her love and strength were unflagging under the hardest of circumstances.
As our managing editor, Roger offered helpful pieces of advice without nitpicking or micromanaging. He’d get worked up while making a point he was passionate about during script meetings but was never insulting or derisive. We carried his name but he was a true collaborator.
As a friend, Roger would send quick and clever emails in conspiratorial tones and longer ones that were warm and encouraging. I’ve never had an actual conversation with Roger, because cancer sadly claimed his ability to speak before our paths crossed; instead, he knew how to convey a sense of connection with a genuine, direct look in his eyes.
And in his personal writings, as in his reviews and essays, he always achieved a feeling of immediacy and accessibility and signed off in missives in his trademark manner: “Cheers, R.”
But Roger made everything feel personal, didn’t he? That’s why we’re seeing such grief upon the news of his death. We all felt as if we knew him. He turned the discussion of films that might’ve seemed too artsy or intimidatingly intellectual into comfortable conversations. At the same time, he remained capable of walking into a movie — any movie, in any genre — with an open mind after decades as a towering force in this business. He always wanted to be dazzled, just as he did when he was a kid. And he’d find the time to scribble a kind word or two in his ever-present notepad before the lights went down.
Once he was no longer able to speak, he turned his blog into an outpouring of musings on every topic imaginable, from alcoholism to atheism. In some ways, I actually enjoyed his writings on subjects outside of film even more. They reflected a curiosity, a yearning to be a citizen of the world rather than just a big fish in a particular pond.
I’ll miss Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer prize-winning film critic. I’ll miss Roger, my friend, so much more.
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