Roger Ebert, Behind The Screen
The Roger Ebert I knew was this kid fresh out of college who, after about a year at the Chicago Sun-Times, was pressed into service helping high school newspaper editors improve their craft. I was sports editor at the Niles High West Word, and the guy painstakingly yet affably showed me a slew of techniques that immediately improved my work, stuff that I use to this day, stuff that, as an editor, I share with others.
Just a few years later, the Roger Ebert I knew befriended the “underground” newspaper that employed me, the Chicago Seed (our circulation topped out near 50,000 copies so I always put quotes around “underground”). I was up at the Sun-Times one day in the early 1970s when Roger came into the city room and was mobbed by his fellow staffers, all congratulating him for his just-published piece in Esquire Magazine. He laughed and handed out copies of a different magazine that also carried his by-line, saying he was much more proud of that sale. The magazine was a science fiction digest, Fantastic, edited by the brilliant Ted White. Some people thought Ebert was kidding. Those people were wrong.
Like every other Chicago institution and individual, The Seed had its favorite pizza joint: Pat’s Pizza, on Sheffield about a half-mile north of our office. We shared this passion with Roger, and I would often – surprisingly often – run into him there. The guy knew his pizza joints.
Like his competitor and broadcast partner Gene Siskel, Ebert had strong passions towards the comics medium. When, in 1976, I was among the handful of people who organized the first Chicago Comicon, Roger called to ask if I could line up an interview with Harvey Kurtzman, one of our guests-of-honor. Even though I was familiar with his interest, I was taken aback. In 1976, if the press covered comics at all the headline always contained the words “pow,” “zap,” and/or “crash,” and focused on the imbeciles who would pay $35.00 for a 20-year old piece of crap. Ebert saw comics as an important storytelling medium and Kurtzman as one of its most important auteurs, a view with which I strongly agree. He was one of the first reporters to take us seriously. He was most certainly the first Pulitzer Prize winning reporter to bestow the light of credibility upon our medium.
I more-or-less lost touch with Ebert when I moved out to New York and he became tied up with his television show and his movie festival and such. But I never forgot that important push he gave me back when he was only in his early 20s. And I am forever grateful.
Roger Ebert died Thursday of complications from cancer, after a half-century of a career that can best, and most succently, be described as “two thumbs up.”