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If it hadn’t been for Roger Ebert, I might well not have pursued a career in writing about films, as it was thanks to him that my words saw print for the first time.
When Roger joined the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966 and was installed as the paper’s film critic the following year, it was a like a huge breath of fresh air for those of us who cared about movies. Chicago was a great newspaper town, but when I was growing up there, virtually all the critics were little old ladies who wore funny hats and had names like Mae Tinee. Roger replaced one of them, Eleanor Keen, and when this brash, sharp-witted guy in his mid-20s started writing about Truffaut and Godard, championing films like Bonnie and Clyde and 2001: A Space Odyssey and celebrating everyone from Groucho Marx to Russ Meyer, film freaks felt as though one of our own finally was in the right place at the right time.
One early article Roger wrote had to do with the dire shortage of art house cinemas in our fine city. As a high school student, I was just developing a hunger for foreign films, and a lot of great ones were coming out in those days. We’d read about them when they opened in New York, but precious few would make it to Chicago, principally because there were only two, perhaps three, theaters on the North Side that would show them and they were typically booked for months at a time showing hits such as A Man and a Woman, King of Hearts and The Shop on Main Street. As a result of this logjam, many important foreign films would never make it to Chicago at all.
Inspired by Roger’s sensitivity to this situation, I wrote a letter commending his attention to it and, as I recall, enumerating all the films I could think of that were caught in the backlog. He ran it right away, which resulted in my writing another letter about something else, and then another, culminating in his invitation to join him one day down at the popular journalists’ watering hole, O’Rourke’s. I was too young to join Roger in downing a few, but we nonetheless discussed everything from the brilliance of Raoul Coutard‘s cinematography to our desperate hunger to see Orson Welles‘ Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), which we eventually saw on opening night when this great but blighted film had its belated Chicago debut at a former burlesque house (home of stripper Babette Bardot) that had been converted to a highbrow haven — inspired, in our minds, by our campaign for more art houses. (It didn’t last long.)
The point is, Roger’s openness and youthful enthusiasm is what inspired me to write about films at all, something I soon continued to do on a regular basis when, on my first day at college, I became film critic for The Stanford Daily. For his part, Roger became a star almost immediately, doing great profiles for Esquire and others; writing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Meyer at the Sunset Marquis Hotel (where I continued to meet Roger in later years); winning the Pulitzer Prize; becoming a TV star and thumb man; and becoming a regular at Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and other festivals, where we would always catch up.
After his TV partner Gene Siskel died in 1999, Roger invited me to be a guest critic one time. Upon arriving for the taping, I recall him proudly pointing out that it was in this very studio that one of the Kennedy-Nixon TV debates took place. As we sat down across from each other, I ventured that he no doubt was sitting in the spot that JFK had occupied and that I was stuck on Nixon’s side. “You can be sure of that,” he said.
The last time I saw him in Los Angeles was in 2005 when he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an unlikely fate for any film critic and an event that curiously embraced the amazing breadth of Roger’s fame and influence. As dozens of friends and the merely curious gathered around in front of the El Capitan, who should be announced to present the honor but the brilliant filmmaker Werner Herzog. I practically laughed out loud at the incongruity of this most iconoclastic of directors presiding over such a ceremony in the heart of the beast in front of uncomprehending tourists, but it also seemed oddly fitting, in that Roger had played a strong role in bringing Herzog to Americans’ attention but had also, and so unpredictably, become the most recognizable film critic in the history of the world.
Roger’s very public struggle with illness over the past 10 years has been heroic, sometimes shocking and altogether inspiring. My heart goes out to Chaz, and I will always miss him.
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