Any time you undertake something you love you can usually cite a few people that influenced you in your endeavor. There are three people I often name as being my “hands on” mentors: Steve Otto, one time film critic of the Tampa Times Stephen Hunter, now a successful author and one time film critic of the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post and Robert Butler, one time film critic of the Kansas City Star (in reading this over I can’t help but be saddened that all of these men no longer work for their respective newspapers, victims of 21st Century technology). If I had to name a fourth it would be Roger Ebert, long time film critic for the Chicago Sun Times who, with his cross-town rival Gene Siskel, brought the movies into our homes each week courtesy of their various television programs. Sadly, Mr. Ebert passed away this morning, a day after announcing he would be curtailing his work schedule because of a recurrence of the cancer he bravely battled for over a decade. He was 70.
Illinois born and bred, Ebert began his journalistic career as a features reporter for the Sun Times in 1966. After the paper’s film critic, Eleanor Keane, left the paper Ebert was given the position, one he filled proudly for almost five decades. In 1975 he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism (I’m proud to add that my friend Stephen Hunter became the second). That same year he and Siskel teamed up for a local television program entitled “Sneak Previews.” The show was a hit and in 1978 became syndicated via PBS. As a film nerd I watched the show religiously, as well as it’s later incarnations: “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert” and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.” Week after week millions of film fans would watch the show to see which films were given a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.” In fact, Ebert and Siskel’s widow, Marlene, own the trademarked phrase “Two Thumbs Up.”
I never got to meet Roger Ebert in person but we shared a little bit of film history. In 1982, while reviewing the film “Six Weeks,” which starred Dudley Moore and Mary Tyler Moore, Ebert remarked how he wished he could burn the negative. I sent him the film’s 35 mm trailer, advising him that if he burned it that would be a good start. Many years later, after I contacted him via email about a project I was working on, I reminded him of my gift. He told me he had gotten it but never got around to burning it! I pray that they don’t show “Six Weeks” in Heaven.