It was a joke, but it was one of those jokes that's also the truth; Roger Ebert was my hero. And now he's gone, dead at the age of 70.
I've written and talked about it before, but it's true: "Siskel & Ebert" is the reason I studied film. It's the reason I have this job. It's the reason I am writing these words right now. It's the reason that I've written any words professionally, if I'm being totally honest. Something about the show captured my imagination. I watched it almost every week from the age of about 12 on, which became increasingly difficult when the local FOX affiliate in the New York area kept pushing it later and later into the wee hours of the morning. It jumped from Saturday nights at 7:00, to Sunday nights at 11:00, and then to Sundays at midnight -- way past my bedtime as a twelve-year-old. So I used to pretend to go to sleep, wait until my parents went to bed, then turn my television back on and watch Roger and Gene duke it out. Some folks sneak around behind their parents' back to do drugs or to go on dates. I did it to watch "Siskel & Ebert."
At that age, I wasn't especially knowledgable in movies. Frankly, back then I probably enjoyed "Siskel & Ebert" itself more than the films they talked about. The thumbs up or down became famous but even more than the verdicts, I loved the conversations; sometimes heated, sometimes jovial, always entertaining. Then and now, the show is often used as a punching bag, a symbol of the "death" of "legitimate" film criticism. In fact, it was the opposite. "Siskel & Ebert" introduced criticism -- and obscure, independent and foreign films -- to millions of people. The show taught me that the movies, beautiful and transformative though they might be, are nothing without the discussions they inspire. Watching was only one part of the equation; talking was the other.
In high school and then especially in college, I discovered that Ebert was an even more remarkable critic in print than on television. With the advent of the Internet, reading Ebert's weekly movie reviews, every Friday after class, became a sort of holy ritual amongst my film nerd clique -- the delivery of the cinema gospel direct from The Man himself. You didn't watch anything until you read Roger's take first. When he inducted a new film into his glorious Great Movies series, that was it; it was officially in the canon, forever and always. On television, Ebert was a great talker. In print, he was a great thinker and a great communicator, just as good at explaining what a film meant as describing what it felt like to watch it.
I met Ebert several times. The first he would not have remembered. It was at a book signing in 2005 where I, a hopelessly starstruck fan, delivered one of the most awkward professions of admiration and gratitude that has ever been uttered in the history of human communication while he signed my copy of "The Great Movies II." I've got that book sitting next to me right now. He left a simple, swirling signature and the date, February 17th, 2005. Not much, but it meant a lot.
The second time we met was in 2010, when I flew out to Chicago to audition for a role on the new version of "At the Movies" Ebert and his wife Chaz were producing for PBS. After filming a test tape, I was brought to meet the man himself, who was watching from his office on a live feed. As I walked into the room, he turned and gave me a thumbs up.
A thumbs up.
I tried to engage in a conversation -- a little less starstruck this time, but not much -- but Ebert, who by this point had lost the ability to speak, kept gesturing and cutting me off. He pointed repeatedly at the computer sitting on his lap and I looked over to discover that director Blake Edwards had died and Ebert was already several paragraphs deep into writing his obituary. Even on this hugely important day which would help shape his big return to television, he was still working the movie beat, forever the journalist, writer, and critic. That's the sort of man Ebert was: tirelessly, unstoppably passionate about movies and communicating his love of them. Losing his voice and a part of his face would have destroyed a lesser man. Somehow, it made him stronger.
When I was a teenager, I just thought Roger and Gene had cool jobs; watching and talking about movies, what could be better than that? The more time I spent around Ebert the more he inspired me as a person rather than as a critic. He and Chaz were an incredible team, and great supporters of the arts and of young critics. Some in his position would have protected their lofty perch. Ebert was the opposite. Look at how many young voices he brought in to his website as Far-Flung Correspondents, and to "Ebert Presents" as guest critics, and supported by linking to their work on Twitter, where he had hundreds of thousands of followers. He was endlessly generous and supportive.
The last time I met Ebert was in September of 2011, at, of all places, another book signing, this one for his memoir, "Life Itself." This time, he wrote a different inscription in my book. It reads:
Man of Cinema,
Thank you, Roger. Thank you for inspiring me and for teaching me and for encouraging me and for giving me the best compliment I've ever received.
You will read a lot of pieces like this one today and tomorrow and the next day. Each story will be different but the message will be the same: we are all here, doing what we do, because of Roger Ebert. We all watched "Siskel & Ebert." We all read his reviews. We all studied the movies his books directed us to. We all wanted to be Roger Ebert when we grew up. We never will, but we'll honor his memory by doing this job the best we can.