ROGER EBERT: MORE THAN JUST A CRITIC

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by Leonard Maltin
April 4, 2013 7:44 PM
20 Comments
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I’m still in a state of shock over the news of Roger Ebert’s death, at age 70, so soon after going public about the recurrence of cancer in his system—and promising to file reviews as often as possible. That’s the Roger Ebert I’m thinking about right now: not the influential critic or the lifelong newspaperman who never missed a deadline, but the guy who faced a staggering series of health crises and refused to give in. He was the bravest person I’ve ever met. It helped that he had an equally indomitable partner in his devoted wife Chaz; they made a great team.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Roger and his longtime partner and rival Gene Siskel had on popular culture and the perception of film criticism. They were both firmly established in Chicago (a great newspaper town), writing for the Sun-Times and the Tribune, respectively, when their local public television affiliate exposed them to a national audience on PBS in the early 1980s. Imagine: a weekly half-hour program consisting of two critics reviewing and debating current movies. There had never been anything like it before and it caught on like wildfire. Gene and Roger were in the right place at the right time, and they made the most of it: they became bona fide celebrities, and soon their names were synonymous with film criticism. (I know this first-hand, because Entertainment Tonight went on the air around the same time. When people started recognizing me in hotel lobbies and airports, they would often ask, “Aren’t you Siskelandebert?”, as if it were a compound name.)

There was a reality-show element to their program, long before reality television took root: people loved to watch them argue and fire potshots at each other. The sniping was genuine, and not always benign…but so was their chemistry, which no one was ever able to re-create, including Roger. But at the heart of their show was an absolute passion for film: they really cared about the movies they championed, and their endorsement helped boost the profile of innumerable films.

I can’t believe it’s almost 30 years since I posed for this shot with a genial Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert at the NATPE television convention
If there was any downside to their television success, it was that so many people only knew them from that medium and never sought out their printed reviews. I was one of those people. It was only with the invention of the Internet that I began reading Roger’s reviews, on his comprehensive website, and marveling at his writing skill. He is the only critic I know who unashamedly drew on his life experiences to explain his feelings about a given movie. It wasn’t a gimmick, and it never made him seem self-absorbed, just disarmingly candid.

I also admired his productivity. Calling him a workaholic is too glib, and imprecise. I believe it was his old-school upbringing in the world of journalism that imbued him with his unyielding work ethic: it had to do with making deadlines, expressing his opinions, and serving his readers. When he suffered the first of his health setbacks, the notion that he might have to miss some films bothered him terribly.


Little did he know what problems lay ahead. Yet he never complained, at least publicly, and never lost his enthusiasm for writing. Instead he embraced the new social media and became a fervent Twitterer, as if to compensate for the loss of his voice by writing even more.

The role of critics has been marginalized by the growth of the Internet and the empowerment of self-made bloggers who are eager to share their opinions. But few, if any, of these wannabes will ever come close to Roger Ebert as an essayist, and I doubt that anyone will ever have the enormous impact he and Gene Siskel had on the moviegoing public.

My family and I send our loving thoughts to Chaz Ebert at this sorrowful time. 

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20 Comments

  • RAFAEL CASTRO | April 8, 2013 9:33 AMReply

    In april 1983, when the cable system arrived in my country one of the channel i ussually see was WGN . With the chicago cubs games, {sammy sosa}, the charlie chan movies, and the SISKEL AND EBERT shows , the weekends days were a lot of fun.

  • Norm` | April 6, 2013 3:22 AMReply

    In Memorium...
    What can be said probably already has ,what can be felt, is what we are dealing with,,,The impact of Ebert & Siskel was instrumental , insightful and lifting. They took film reviews to a deeper introspection, they took film reviews to enlightenment, they took it to a higher richer level...
    The Passing of Roger Ebert closes a chapter on a book started in the 70's, but opened the world to an eager generation, wanting to know...Much Thanks and Admiration.

  • William Dobbs | April 5, 2013 8:07 PMReply

    I am deeply saddened to hear about Roger's passing. I have been a movie
    enthusiast and film collector for fifty of my fifty four years. Roger' s reviews and
    program "Siskel & Ebert" have always been a most enjoyable part of
    my life. Roger will be greatly missed, but not forgotton. My sympathy to his family.

  • Nat Segaloff | April 5, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    Yours was one of the handful of reactions to Ebert's passing that I was waiting to read, Leonard. As usual, you nailed it, and I appreciate your noting that those who only knew his reviews from the TV show missed a lot. Since I had access to his tearsheets when I was a publicist (and had the pleasure of dealing with him, too), I was well aware that the Pulitzer went to him for his ink, not his pixels. The great thing about Sisbert is that they gave essential exposure to films of which the general TV audience would otherwise never have heard. The bad thing is that they and their thumbs (as well as newspapers' star and numerical rating systems) cheapened reviewing. I wish other critics loved, loved, loved movies as much as Roger. Hell, I wish film companies did.

  • John | April 5, 2013 4:38 PMReply

    I've been depressed ever since I heard about the passing of Roger. Just like what I felt when Gene Siskel died I feel like I've lost a family member or close friend. What great memories of watching those two gentlemen and later Roger alone and with his other TV partners. So sad to see Roger's health deteriorate in recent years but how inspiring to see how he handled his dire situation with courage and dignity and humor. To his final day he loved viewing movies and writing about them, even had more big plans for the future. R.I.P. our good friend Roger Ebert. You will be greatly missed by all of us who love films.

  • John | April 5, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    I've been depressed ever since I heard about the passing of Roger. Just like what I felt when Gene Siskel died I feel like I've lost a family member or close friend. What great memories of watching those two gentlemen and later Roger alone and with his other TV partners. So sad to see Roger's health deteriorate in recent years but how inspiring to see how he handled his dire situation with courage and dignity and humor. To his final day he loved viewing movies and writing about them, even had more big plans for the future. R.I.P. our good friend Roger Ebert. You will be greatly missed by all of us who love films.

  • Larry Smith | April 5, 2013 4:03 PMReply

    Thanks Leonard for doing what you do best, putting in to words the thoughts that may of us share but have trouble expressing. And thank you Chaz Ebert, since I can no longer say thank you Roger. I guess Roger is now back with Gene Siskel in the balcony… In 1975 I was graduating high school and had just made some new friends who were serious about the study of old films. We were looking for someone who was also passionate about the art of story telling, movies that moved us to laughter or tears. First we discovered the books of Leonard Maltin and the late great William K. Everson. Then it seems all film buffs eventually discovered Roger and he became a beacon of insights. As the decades pasted and we watched hundreds of movies that either Roger recommended or that we savored his review after discovering the film for ourselves – either way we shared these films with Roger. Sadly it was his time to go, and gladly we got to know him as we too learned life’s lessons from the flickering lights in the dark.
    Our best to you and Alice,
    Larry Smith
    Nitrate Film Specialist
    Library Of Congress

  • Jim Reinecke | April 5, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    He was one of the giants at what he did. Perhaps I should capitalize that as Giants. Like his long-time partner, Gene Siskel and the late William K. Everson, the delightfully witty and acerbic Jeanine Basinger and, certainly, you Leonard, he spoke and wrote about film eloquently and passionately without the self-impressed, smart-ass attitude of the likes of Pauline Kael. With Mr. Ebert's passing I genuinely feel the end of an era in my life and a sense of my own mortality. This is no attempt to wallow in self pity but simply a statement born out of my longtime admiration for this man and his work, which encompassed more than half of my life. My deepest sympathies to Chaz Ebert and, Leonard, a personal plea. . .take care of yourself! Movie lovers like myself need the likes of you to guide us to cinematic discoveries both old and new. Keep the flame burning!

  • Kathy G | April 5, 2013 2:43 PMReply

    I agree with all of those that have commented before me - a great tribute piece for Roger Ebert. You are one with those in THAT community of film critics, and I feel YOUR loss as well. Thank you.

  • Karen S. | April 5, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    A beautiful and moving tribute to a most extraordinary man. You're right in that it's his writings that make one appreciate his brilliant insights and literary talent. You were lucky to know him as a friend, I envy you. He will be greatly missed.

  • AL D | April 5, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    At least we still have you, Leonard. I always loved watching Siskel & Ebert on Saturdays to laugh at how hard they chided each other. That being said, I've been buying your guide every year for over 15 years, until you came out with the app. I'm happy to admit I have been a professed disciple for years, so please continue to educate.

  • Joao Solimeo | April 5, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    Ebert was a living legend. Now he´s immortal.

  • jay lurie | April 5, 2013 9:02 AMReply

    Leonard, that was a wonderful tribute to Roger Ebert.

  • Barbara | April 5, 2013 1:42 AMReply

    Thank you so much for your tribute to Roger Ebert. He was such a devoted man in many ways. He was always one of the first movie critics to give his review and he always gave you the impression he loved his work. That I also pick up from you. Thanks again for your lovely tribute to Roger.

  • Michael | April 5, 2013 12:51 AMReply

    A lovely tribute, Leonard. I never had the privilege to know either Roger Ebert or Gene Siskel. But I know for a fact their chemistry was unique and irreplaceable. You see, I worked on their PBS show "Sneak Previews" AFTER Roger and Gene left the show (talk about showing up late to the party). We had younger, arguably more attractive hosts, the same classic music, better graphics, and higher production value. We had a proven formula with an audience used to tuning in each week to get their fix of movie reviews. And it failed. Dismally. Within a year or two the audience had shrunk to microscopic levels, and within 5 years the show was off the air-- after a horrible decision to 'revamp' the show for the home video era. "Sneak Previews Goes Video" barely made it a season. Siskel & Ebert went to Buena Vista and thrived in syndication. They were enjoyable to watch, and like you, their passion for film could not be matched.

  • Susan S. | April 4, 2013 11:58 PMReply

    The news today of Roger Ebert’s death has truly shocked and saddened me. His struggle was so courageous, and him and Chaz’s love story so deep and strong, he felt immortal to me. I have watched his reviews since I was a kid (late seventies/grew up in the 80s) and LOVED At the Movies with Gene Siskel. I watched it even through its various inceptions with other critics and his illness until its end in 2010. His struggle of the last decade+ was profoundly inspirational, and amazing to see his career highten even more, through blogs and using his computerized voice (because of the cancer & inability to speak). In all the years of Oprah, the show with him & Chaz a few years ago, was one that stands out to me because of this very reason. It touched me in such a DEEP way, their interview and journey, words can not express. It’s like today…this pains me and makes me cry as if he is a friend. And he is! To all us movie buffs and lovers!!! Even if you didn’t agree with a review, you respected him because he was brilliant and passionate. He was a smart, creative, genius of a Pulitzer-Prize winning screenwriter, short story writer, reviewer and essayist, and his books were legendary–he elevated the art. With his Film Festival, too, which will go on. All his work will live on. As a person who hopes to do something with film one day, and as a never-ending movie-watcher, he will be in my future thoughts. And my prayers go out to his wife, children, grandchildren, family, and friends. R.I.P. Roger Ebert. The balcony is closed. Two thumbs up for your life and career, two thumbs down for this news.

  • Stacey | April 4, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    What a beautiful tribute to such an amazing icon.

  • KEITH | April 4, 2013 10:24 PMReply

    Roger was the best, and I will miss him dearly. When he reviewed a film, he was right 95% of the time!!!!!! Thumbs Up to Mr. Ebert!!! Keith in San Francisco

  • Steven Kelly | April 4, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    I have a heavy heart over the unexpectedly sudden loss of Roger Ebert, Mr. Maltin.

    Your TV MOVIES book instilled a passion for film reviewing in me, and that was shortly followed by first encountering Siskel and Ebert on PBS in 1978. I watched their programs religiously, just as I bought every update to TV MOVIES religiously.

    Mr. Siskel passed away just days before my wedding. I remember feeling the same sadness back then----losing a friend whom I never actually met. Four years later, I was able to meet Mr. Ebert, on his Disney Film Cruise with Richard Roeper. I was able to tell him how much he's meant in my life, and later pose some questions in the screening theater. Hell, I even got to SING to Roger Ebert! Picture a karaoke bar, Mr. Ebert and his lovely wife Chaz in attendance, me singing "Hey Jude," and Roger doing "The Wave" during the na-na-na finale. A surreal moment and an unforgettable one.

    I shall miss him dearly.

  • Cameron Michael | April 4, 2013 8:34 PMReply

    Thanks Leonard,

    This was a beautiful piece on your peer, Roger Ebert. His importance can be summed up in the simple fact that whenever a film is released almost everyone wonders what Roger Ebert had to say about it.

    Also, I saw that people were making crude jokes about his death and how you'd benefit from it. I found them disgusting. I hope you are easily able to shake those jokes off. This man was your peer and you had a relationship with him. Why anyone would even joke about this is beyond me.

    I hope you and yours are well.

    I can't wait to continue reading your reviews and again thank you for this.

    Cameron

    (P.S. Thank you for being the inspiration for the Leonard Maltin Game - sorry, I had to.)

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