on-air debates with fellow Chicago film critic (and equally bullheaded) Gene Siskel were legendary, often funny and great theater unto itself.
After two decades, I held an established stereotype of Ebert as a scowling disagreeable sort, that is until the 1999 episode of "Siskel and Ebert" in which he paid solo tribute to his former sparring partner. The look-back (and deeply personal) episode, filled with classic "Siskel and Ebert" moments, was moving and revealing. Underpinning their on-air partnership, as boisterous as it was, was deep respect for one another and genuine friendship. Airing his grief on-air seemed to somehow humanize Ebert - for me at least.
For those that weren't around at the time, or weren't fans of the duo, it's hard to convey how deeply entrenched the names "Siskel and Ebert" were with one another. We're talking a brand by any definition. "Ebert" without the "Siskel" was scarcely imaginable. Think "Laurel" without "Hardy", "Procter" without "Gamble", "Macaroni" without "Cheese" - it just doesn't compute.
For a while, the show carried on, at first with a variety of replacement film-critics (eventually settling into a successful run with Richard Roeper). But it just wasn't the same.
The new century held serious health challenges for Ebert, cruelly robbing him of his physical voice and dramatically altering his physical appearance. Blows such as these would fall lesser beings, but not Roger Ebert. Aided by the support of his devoted wife "Chaz", along with his own unconquerable spirit, Roger emerged with an even larger voice than ever before. I'm not talking vocally (surgeries and the removal of his lower jaw had seen to that), but with something else altogether - his thoughts, and words that could still be communicated via his wholehearted embrace of technology. The speech synthesis software that mimicked his own speaking voice comes to mind, but more-so, the medium of social media - that intentionally or not, Ebert helped to legitimize (via his blog, twitter postings and other forms of digital media).
It should be said that Roger Ebert's love of film never wavered, nor did his honesty or passion. As his constituency on the internet grew, we (or I) became exposed to a broader picture of the man, especially his left-leaning views on politics and outspoken admiration for those he found to be personally inspiring. Whether you agreed with him or not, Roger Ebert remained as opinionated as ever, provoking argument, debate and impassioned defense of views for and against a wide variety of subjects. He clearly did not, and never was, willing to suffer fools. At the same time, he seemed more gracious than ever, expressing sincere gratitude to his audience and especially his wife (whose job going forward will be to carry on and promote his amazing legacy).
An entire generation, unborn or too little at the time to remember his heyday as television's premier film critic, instead think of Roger Ebert as a standard-bearer for their voice - ironic to a degree, but ultimately amazing.
What are the lessons we can take away from this man?
Well, that's a debate for the ages and presumably one Roger Ebert himself would relish. I think:
- Engage. Converse. Put yourself and your beliefs on the line - frequently and without reserve.
- Listen. Retain an open mind. Expose yourself to many points-of-view (even if you don't necessarily agree with them). Respect other people's opinions.
- Prepare. Research. Come ready to defend and articulate your position, clearly and concisely.
- Soldier on in the face of adversity.
- Stay positive. No matter what curves life throws at you, there will always be things to smile about and be grateful for.
Those are the qualities of Roger Ebert's life that I choose to inspire me, and it's clear from where I sit in the balcony, that I'm far from alone.
"Thumbs Up" Roger for a life will lived.