Roger Ebert wasn’t the reason I wanted to become a film critic, but he certainly fanned the flames of passion that I still have for the movie industry.
The spirited debates Ebert and fellow critic Gene Siskel (who died in 1999) would have each week — first on the public television version of their film critic show, “Sneak Previews,” and then later when it was syndicated as “Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies” — made me look at, and appreciate more, a broader selection of films. I always seemed to side more with Ebert, who, of the pair, seemed the closest to having the same blue collar perspective I still try to bring to the job.
Ebert was the guy who wrote the screenplay for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” when he was younger; Siskel was the Yale graduate.
I didn’t always agree with Ebert, but the way he could clearly make an argument for a movie influenced me heavily. A person can be the master of words, but the most important thing in a review is to explain quickly whether you do or don’t like the film. Ebert always made it very clear.
Ebert’s known for his reviews, but he was just as gifted with his celebrity interviews. His stories always made you feel like you were in the seat next to him talking with the stars.
The only time I got to meet Ebert was at a publicity event at Epcot Center in Orlando. He was one of the invited guests and spent most of the evening talking more about himself than about movies.
I greeted him, saying “Thank you for your time Mr. Ebert.” To which he replied, “Thank you for not calling me Mr. Siskel.” I never could tell if he was joking about being mixed up with his TV partner or if it really made him mad. Of course, that’s what made their on-screen banter so much fun to watch.
Ebert and Siskel were unique. That’s obvious by how all of the other attempts to mimic their show have failed. Everything afterwards seemed like a pale imitation.
Viewers might not have been able to tell them apart in the beginning, but that changed as both grew to the have the same kind of star power that many actors have. You know you are well known when you are more associated with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture than the ancient Romans.
The way Ebert so clearly passed on his passion for movies is a gift millions have all been able to enjoy from print to television. For that, I would like to give him one huge thumbs up.