The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
As we celebrate empathy this week on the fifth anniversary of Roger Ebert's passing, we'll be sharing some of your Roger stories submitted over the last week. In this installment, we've gathered memories of those who met and talked to him over the years. We previously published a collection of memories from fellow film critics, and tomorrow we'll be sharing some memories sent in by his readers.
I met Roger on April 1, 2006. The occasion was the Wisconsin Film Festival (in the glory days of Meg Hamel's curation), and Roger was hosting a Q&A in correspondence with the festival, on the isthmus downtown in what he called "the people's republic of Madison." Roger opened his dialogue with the audience by asking "who here has seen a good movie lately?" At the time I was 14, and fancied myself a cinematic expeditionary, and when my turn to share came I mentioned I had been recently struck by Bergman's “The Seventh Seal.” While my choice was no doubt show-offish, Roger proceeded to cogently and seriously discuss the film with me, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of the chess match in cinema. He was excited that this (pretentious) young person was taking an interest in classic art-house films and gave me his Wisconsin Film Fest pin as a medal for "being curious about great movies."
Only a few months later he would undergo surgery that would leave him without his physical voice. I remain incredibly grateful to have met him and spoken with him, however briefly, and still cherish the pin to this day.
I saw Roger at Sundance, 2000. Siskel had just died, so unexpectedly, the previous year. I was a senior at film school, I grew up on their reviews, and I missed Gene greatly already. It was so delightful to see that Roger was in the audience with me at “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
After the film, crowds gathered around Tammy Faye. She was tiny, but still larger than life. Roger was furiously snapping (film) photos of her. A fan interrupted him to ask for a photo with them. Roger snapped back angrily, “I’m working here!”
I laughed and laughed. I’m sure the fan was upset, but to me, it was classic Ebert. We waited around for 15-20 minutes more, and Roger graciously, if expediently, posed for a picture with us (after he’d had the chance to talk to Tammy Faye).
I have pictures of the whole encounter, including him taking pictures of her, and both her and him taking pictures with us, which I cherish. I know he softened over the years and had a decent, humanist heart, but I loved prickly Ebert.
I met Roger Ebert on a book tour for Your Movie Sucks. I waited patiently in line for a signing, as I’d been a fan for many years. Upon meeting him, I thanked him for mentioning that a movie I’d wanted to see forever (Errol Morris' “Gates of Heaven”) was finally released on DVD. I was a fan of the director (in part because of Roger’s reviews over the years) and had tried to find it without success.
He signed my book and looked off in the distance. I assumed that he was done with me, like so many authors signing a million books, with a million more to sign.
As I started to walk away, he began to speak. At first I thought he was addressing the next person, but it was for me. “There’s this woman in that movie—Florence Rasmussen, who gives the most moving speech.” He then spent about two minutes spontaneously dissecting one scene of a movie, why it was moving, and why it was remarkable storytelling.
To my surprise, Roger hadn’t dismissed me, but rather was deep in thought about a craft that he loved and wanted to share that with a random stranger who’d expressed interested. The moment that he spent to pass on his passion has never left me.
Years back, which is to say during the mid-to-late-1990s, I was pen-pals with Roger, who was an early adopter of the Internet through Compuserve. I was also writing reviews online, which of course is not nearly as common a practice as it is now. As an admirer of his work, it was a great thrill to finally meet him at Telluride Film Festival in 2002. We went for an iced tea (which he picked up the tab for), and as we left the place, a young girl asked him for his autograph. He signed it, then pointed to me, and said, “You should get his autograph too—he’s one of the best-known critics online.” It was a bit of an embellishment for him to say that, but I never forgot what a classy move it was and how it made me feel special and like I could accomplish something worthy of the gesture. Not a lot of people would have the presence of mind to make a move like that.
I had the privilege of getting to know this brilliant and kind man through my dear friendship with his wife Chaz who I met nearly 20 years ago.
I had many wonderful times with Roger including his Star Ceremony in Hollywood, the green room before his segment on the Tonight show and many Telluride Film Festivals. However none of these bigger moments compare to a visit to their home in Chicago after Roger had lost the ability to speak. He showed me with pride all of his mementos and awards and then we sat down in their living room. He wrote on a pad of paper if I would read to him one of his favorites, Yeats. So there we were, just he and I, one of the most prolific writers and speakers in the world asking me to read to him so he could absorb these beautiful words. He smiled and it was in that moment that I knew that we had shared one of life’s remarkable experiences. A lesson in empathy for never taking “my voice” for granted and how the smallest gesture can be the most impactful.
I love and miss you, Roger.
While my interactions with Roger probably amount more to anecdotes than stories, I still feel compelled to share them because they meant a lot to me.
Both occasions I was lucky enough to meet Roger were in the screening room in Chicago, where I would go to review movies for my college newspaper, The DePaulia. I hadn’t been doing it very long when one day, I was running late to a screening of "Exit Through the Gift Shop." I had heard Roger Ebert came to the screening room pretty often, but again, I was still new to this whole world and I didn’t quite believe I would ever see him. Well, I believed it on that day, when I arrived to the film at least five minutes late, desperately trying to find a seat, and ended up having to take the one right in front of Mr. Ebert himself.
I watched the rest of the movie (which is quite good) overly distracted, acutely aware of the giant I was sitting in front of. When the film was done, I felt that I had to say something, for fear I would always curse myself if I never got another chance. I tried to approach him as casually as I could. Roger and Chaz were both very nice to me, though I must’ve come off as a blubbering amateur. I asked Roger what he thought of the movie, and learned the hard way that he didn’t discuss films before his review was published. Nevertheless, I walked away feeling happy that I got to tell a man who’s work meant so much to me exactly that.
On the next occasion I ran into him, I'd made sure to bring my copy of The Great Movies with me for him to sign. He not only did this graciously, despite what was probably an unprofessional request on my part, he also dated it and inscribed that we had met in the screening room. He gave me his email too, so I could reach out about doing an interview with him for The DePaulia. This never happened, but I still cherish the little interaction we had that day and the time before.
I continued to see him at the screening room until I left Chicago a few years later (my favorite of these occasions was probably when somehow we were both tasked with reviewing "Hatchet 2,") but I don’t think I approached him again, probably for fear of bothering him. It was clear that his health was not good by that point.
Years later, I walked into a movie theater in Los Angeles to see "Life Itself." One of the movies Ebert was reviewing in the film was "Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III," a forgettable Charlie Sheen vehicle from Roman Coppola. It occurred to me this was the last movie I saw at this very theater, the last time I was in Los Angeles, the year earlier. I wept when the movie was over, not so much because a man I loved was gone, but because I felt overwhelmed by life’s happy little coincidences, which several times in college afforded me the chance to actually talk to this man.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but I met Roger Ebert twice, and wouldn’t trade either interaction for anything.
I was a big fan of the Siskel & Ebert television shows (in all their incarnations), since the 1970s and so it was certainly one of the big moments in my life when I actually met Roger Ebert.
My name is Jeff Still, I'm an actor, and in the winter of 2000 I was working at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in a play by Austin Pendleton called Orson's Shadow; I played Orson Welles in this piece, and of course in doing so I did quite a bit of research including reading all about Citizen Kane. I was aware that Roger Ebert was quite an expert on this particular subject, and had also enjoyed greatly his book of interviews entitled "A Kiss is Still a Kiss." I knew very well that Roger Ebert was, among other things, an expert on "Citizen Kane." At the end of the play there is a section where the characters, chiefly Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Plowright, are standing on stage as Plowright informs them what happened to their lives after the life of the play, which took place in 1960, ended. I had chosen to stand during this section in a stance copied from a stance that Orson Welles took in one of the Citizen Kane posters. This was something I just did for myself, there is no reason any audience member would know what I was doing.
One night after the performance Roger Ebert came around to meet with the actors. We were all awed and delighted that he did so, and it was a thrill to hear him thank us and congratulate us on our work. I wore a fat suit to play Orson Welles and, as I struggled with the zipper to get out of it Roger quipped, "That's how I get out of mine, too." It was wonderful to meet him and talk with him, this man whom I had admired for so long, and as we talked about the play, and also about "Citizen Kane," Roger said "You know, I know a little about this." I thought, "no kidding."
Then he said, "You know, that stance you took at the end of the play - that looked just like Welles did on the poster" and I was, as the British would say, gobsmacked. No one else but Roger Ebert would have known that. Afterwards we all went across the street to O'Rourke's and, while I did not get the chance to talk to him there, it was still an honor knowing he was in the room (Roger was not drinking any alcoholic beverages by this point, by the way—I would find out later he had stopped drinking). I treated myself to a cab that night, thinking in the back seat as we sped north towards Andersonville how elated I was that I had not only just met Roger Ebert, but that this great man had validated my work.
Many years later, as Roger was assembling "At the Movies with Roger Ebert," he wanted to do an intro to the show that was an homage to a trailer Orson Welles had done for Citizen Kane, introducing the people on his program as Welles had once introduced the Mercury Theatre players. Roger had remembered my performance of Welles that was, at this point, some 11 or 12 years prior, and inquired as to whether I would do the introduction. After a brief Skype interview/audition with Chaz I was offered the part and did the introduction, and so had yet another connection with Roger Ebert.
Roger Ebert was a giant in his field, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, and one of the nicest "celebrities" (I'm sure he would scoff at that word to describe him) I have ever met, and by now I've met quite a few. I miss him every time a movie comes out that I want to see and I wish he were here to tell me what he thought about it. Rest well, Mr. Ebert—you've earned that permanent seat on the aisle.
I was living in Chicago in the early '90s and ran into Roger in a Laserdisc store one afternoon. He had a huge stack of discs under his arm. I said hi, told him I was an editor and asked what he was buying. He put down his stack and went through each title, telling me why he was buying it and what was so special about each film, even if it was just a fun title with no real cinematic worthiness.
Back in April 2006 on the last night of the Conference on World Affairs I received a call in Boulder Colorado to tell me my 92-year-old mother had suffered a stroke back in Ireland. I fell into panic mode and got the first available flight back to Dublin via Chicago next morning.
Roger shared the ride to the airport next morning with us and was really sympathetic to the emotions I was going through. He offered to take my daughter and I into the first class lounge to wait for our flight. He was really kind to us and I will never forget it.
Mummy died that same night, 12 years ago now and then Roger left us. I will never forget him.
He used to call me “the Irish storyteller” and once asked me to voice some his jokes at a gathering in Colorado. I smile at the memory and acknowledge the empathy he showed me.
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