The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

April 20, 2013

BILL EGGERT | Roger Ebert: His legacy deserves a ‘thumbs up’

— It seems everyone has been rushing to pay tribute to the late Roger Ebert since his recent passing.

Film scholars, critics, directors and actors all have been paying homage to the “Thumbs up” guy who graced our television screens for 25 years with his former friend/foe/fellow critic, the late Gene Siskel.

I think everyone was not only paying tribute to Ebert, but using their platform as a catharsis to mourn the loss of this important film critic.

After Siskel’s passing in 1999, Ebert looked lonely onscreen, even when teamed with other film critics. No one seemed able to replace that chemistry between Ebert and Siskel.

I emailed Ebert after Siskel’s passing to throw my hat into the ring. While having no cachet on a national level, I felt I could handle the challenge with my master’s degree in film studies that I earned from Emory University. And, as I told Roger, I thought “Ebert and Eggert” had a nice ring to it.

Within a week I received a nice reply from Roger thanking me for my interest, but explaining that they had already chosen his fellow Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper as Siskel’s replacement.

Dad and I were impressed that I even got a response from Roger. I knew it was a long shot, but felt it worth the effort.

As I found out later, Roger was a down-to-earth guy, who corresponded with the average Joe. He was not one to feel above relating to “the masses.”

I think it was Roger’s egalitarian attitude toward people and cinema that endeared him to his loyal readers; that and his obvious knowledge and acumen of cinema and his journalistic talents. After all, he was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, one of only three others to date. Yet despite this award, you never saw Ebert flaunt his award unless to defend a person or point.

I think it was only after Siskel’s passing that we really came to appreciate Ebert and his talent as a film critic. Prior to this he seemed joined at the hip with Siskel, as a kind of traveling road show that appeared on talk shows with Carson and Letterman to argue about films.

After Gene passed, only Roger was left standing, as that lone voice in the forest to evaluate films. There were other critics, but none with the elevated profile that TV brought to Ebert.

You could feel Roger rise to the occasion. Not only continuing on with the TV show, but with his books, film festivals, and possibly a godsend in his later, illness-filled years: The Internet, with email, websites and Twitter. Roger was a prolific writer; I do not think he ever had writer’s block. Words came easy to him, even when robbed of his voice.

His later years, after stricken with cancer, have been well-documented by many, including Roger himself. His refusal to let cancer deprive him of his voice, even as it robbed him of speaking, served as an inspiration to everyone, critics and fellow man. He devised a way to see films, write his reviews, and still communicate with folks.

He knew his time was growing short, yet refused to slow down in his productivity, continuing to work on his legacy, despite the pain. He kept up until the very end, even leaving an ambiguous sign-off to readers.

One final Roger Ebert story to share. A friend and former fellow faculty member of mine at an Atlanta college, Sarah Larson, told me that she taught Roger in high school when she was a young teacher. She said English teachers dreaded having him as a student because he was so good, and because he challenged them regarding the rules of writing, which he felt were not needed.

Still, Sarah felt that he did absorb those rules despite his protests. Sarah thought he was a wonderful, bright, gifted student. She had even saved an essay he wrote from over

50 years ago. She said that she had also fired Roger as prop man from a play she was directing because he kept firing the blank guns. She felt bad about that but felt Roger needed to be disciplined. I told Sarah that maybe she helped to guide him to his chosen vocation in life, in a roundabout way. Sarah laughed and agreed.

I think we will all remember Roger Ebert long after his passing. His words and life will remain with us as the years go by. Thumbs way up, Roger, for a life well-lived.

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