California Forum

Gregory Favre: Remembering the Roger Ebert I knew

The Crest Theatre was a little more than half full for this matinee screening. There were lots of bald heads and gray hair, and throughout the two hours of “Life Itself” there was no talking or texting or trivial pursuit of conversation that could wait until the final credits rolled.

Maybe younger generations never saw “Siskel & Ebert” or they think thumbs-up arrived with Google or Twitter. Or perhaps it was the absence of Transformers and zombies in the cast.

Whatever the reason, if you missed one of the only two recent showings of “Life Itself,” consider it your loss. And if it doesn’t return here to the big screen, find some other way to see it.

It is two hours of a beautifully crafted documentary, overflowing with earned respect for the man in the starring role, Roger Ebert, respect for his eloquence, his bravery and for that unbreakable bond he had for decades with serious moviegoers across the country.

It is two hours recalling his life, his death, his story, his words and the words of his family, especially his beloved wife, Chaz, and a sprinkling of friends.

It is two hours that trigger some tears, some closing of the eyes to blot out frightening scenes of his suffering, and, yes, some laughs.

For me, it was two hours of remembering the Roger I knew in Chicago when we both worked for the Sun-Times, when one of the best perks of all was going with Roger to see a movie in the private screening room in the heights of the Chicago Theater.

Remembering Roger, always first and foremost a newspaperman, even after his television checks overwhelmed what he earned in print. He started on his college newspaper, was given the chance to review movies in his early 20s and became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Roger, the most precise, quickest and prose-perfect writer any editor could ever desire to have on his or her staff. As a mutual friend wrote of him, “In words and life he displayed the soul of a poet whose passions and interests extended far beyond the darkened theaters where he spent so much of his professional life.”

Roger, a movie critic who couldn’t walk through an airport or eat in a restaurant without being stopped numerous times by his fans, becoming as well known as most of the stars he covered. But he never forgot his roots and those who stood with him during good and bad times.

Yes, there were some rough times, honestly revisited in the documentary. The kid from Southern Illinois tried his hardest to show he could drink and carouse with the best in the big city, and, as he confesses, if he hadn’t stopped, “Life Itself” would have had a much different ending. In fact, it wouldn’t have been written or turned into a documentary.

The television exposure made Roger what a Forbes magazine writer once called “the most powerful pundit in America.” He and Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune movie critic, with thumbs up or down, could make or derail a movie or the career of a director or an actor.

This odd couple pairing started in 1975 on PBS in Chicago, and it became the syndicated “Siskel & Ebert” show, which ran from 1986 to 1999, when Siskel tragically died of a brain tumor.

They were two intensely competitive journalists fighting for readers at a time when Chicago newspapers battled furiously edition to edition. At the Sun-Times, we believed that with Ebert and Mike Royko, nonpareil as a local columnist, we had a head start each day.

After Gene’s death, Roger paired with Richard Roeper and the show went on in various incarnations until Roger became too ill to continue. But it was never the same as it was with Siskel, the man Roger came to love and admire.

A brutal cancer and several operations hushed Roger’s voice, but they could not stifle his fingers. His reviews continued, the most ever, 306, in the year before he died. And with his blog, he explored and commented on issues and subjects that stretched comfortably beyond movies, exposing his intellectual heft in ways that many readers had not seen before.

His last entry came on April 2, 2013, one day before he would celebrate the 46th anniversary of his first day as the Sun-Times movie critic.

“A Leave of Presence” was the headline.

“What in the world is a leave of presence?” he wrote. “It means I am not going away.”

Roger died two days later.