In the spring of 1996, I spent the better part of a day with Roger Ebert while working on a talk show where he was a guest. I was privileged to play chauffeur to Roger, spend time on the set with him, and even have lunch with him along with some of our crew. Over the years, people would ask me what Ebert was like. With news of his death, I began to reflect on that question. What kind of person was Roger Ebert? My answer now, as it has always been, is as follows:
First, the man loved movies. He loved to talk about them. He loved to hear others talk about them. His passion for film was heartfelt and honest. He talked about them with anyone and everyone – and he did so in a way that you enjoyed it. He had a plain spoken, honest, midwestern appeal. You could relate to him – even if you didn’t agree with him.
Second, Ebert not only loved to challenge others – but he delighted in being challenged. The talk show Ebert was a guest on was aimed at middle school kids – not exactly his primary audience. But Roger was great with the youngsters. He respected them – never talking down to them. In fact, he challenged them and engaged them. After the show, Roger and I spoke a little about the experience, and he displayed genuine pleasure at the experience. He was impressed by their questions and enthusiasm. It had been “fun”, he said. Ebert was a frequent guest lecture at the University of Chicago, and his ease with young people makes me think he would have been a wonderful teacher – no matter what subject or grade level – had he not gone into journalism.
Finally, Roger respected others. From the show’s producers to the audience to the staff and crew – he was polite and professional at every turn. Some of the staff members at our facility had books Ebert had written. Many brought in their books, and asked for Roger to sign them. Never once did he refuse or act annoyed at having to do so. And each time he was unfailingly polite to that person. If they had stories to tell or questions to ask, he listened patiently and engaged that person with an honest answer. And he never once did not say ‘thank you’. As I drove Roger to our lunch destination, I made a comment about all the books he had signed. He said that everyone of those people who bought his book deserved his time and respect. They trusted him and had invested in him – and they deserved to be treated with equal trust. It was a refreshing statement.
Roger Ebert is famous for many things. But what I recall of him was that he was a decent, honest and smart man. He loved to discuss film, but also was also a great listener. He treated you as you would have wanted to be treated. Perhaps this ability to relate to others is what made him such a great writer and personality.
Rest in peace, Roger. Thanks for the memories.