The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Editor's Note: On the day Roger passed away, his longtime friend and Sun-Times colleague Robert Feder wrote the following essay.
On the night Gene Siskel died, Roger Ebert and I spent an hour on the phone together, talking about the loss of our dear friend and lamenting that we never knew how gravely ill he was.
There was no question that Roger respected Gene’s decision to keep the extent of his illness private. But it saddened Roger that he was never able to reach out to Gene in a meaningful way at the end. Just weeks earlier, Gene had told us he was taking an indefinite leave of absence, but was in a hurry to get well “because I don’t want Roger to get more screen time than I.” We both believed he’d be back.
I’ll never know for sure, but I always suspected that Roger’s experience with Gene had a lot to do with how open and forthright he chose to be about his own health problems in the years that followed. He shared everything. Even when some of those closest to him discouraged him from showing his disfigured face in public, Roger set vanity aside and moved forward with courage and grace that inspired us all.
I was almost a generation younger than Roger and didn’t get to know him personally until I joined the Sun-Times in 1980. By then, he’d already won the Pulitzer Prize, become a rising star on public television, and left his legendary drinking and carousing days behind. But he was still very much an endearing and approachable presence in the newsroom — even to a rookie reporter toiling as a legman to the paper’s TV critic. His nickname for me was "Scoop," and he'd often tease me about "putting little pills" in Gary Deeb's coffee as if I were plotting against my boss.
For many years, my desk was right outside Roger's door, and I'd find any excuse to peek inside. His office was more like a museum, filled from floor to ceiling with movie posters, books, toys, treasures and tchotchkes of all kinds. As cluttered as it was, he knew precisely where everything belonged, right down to the last Mickey Mouse figurine.
When Roger held court in the middle of the features department, all other work stopped. He'd start out talking to one or two friends and soon an impromptu audience would assemble to hear him tell stories, share the latest joke he'd heard (he always laughed the loudest at his own punch lines), or deliver a wicked impersonation of Irv Kupcinet.
Not that it was all fun and games. When Roger got down to business, no one could match his performance as a writer. Everything he created sparkled with his unmatched wit, intelligence and humanity. And he was a dynamo on deadline.
Whenever I told someone I worked for the Sun-Times, invariably the first question that followed was whether I knew Roger Ebert. He personified the paper and was its heart and soul. For at least the last quarter-century, no one came close to his stature as its biggest draw and brightest star. First and foremost he thought of himself as a newspaperman — specifically a Chicago newspaperman.
As busy as he was, Roger was unfailingly thoughtful and generous. Countless times he’d send me notes of praise or share invaluable news tips. More than once, when he felt I had been unfairly attacked for something I’d written, he publicly rose to my defense. In more recent years, a tweet from Roger to his 841,481 followers with a reference to my blog would send my page views skyrocketing. He never asked for anything in return.
I danced at his wedding to Chaz at the Drake Hotel, I celebrated at his annual Fourth of July parties in Michigan, and I cheered with all my heart at every honor and accolade bestowed on him.
Best of all, I rarely missed a chance to tell him how much I cherished his friendship.