Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, was known for his Chicago Sun-Times reviews he wrote solo, but many movie fans were introduced to him in his collaborative projects, when he and another critic supplied audiences with entertaining and thought-provoking discourse about film on his multiple TV shows. He brought his discussions about the movies to television with the late Chicago Tribune writer Gene Siskel at his side, first on Coming Soon to a Theater Near You and later on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies. Beginning in 2000, his movie talks featured fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper.
When EW spoke to Roeper today, he said that though Ebert’s death was somewhat expected following his long battle with thyroid cancer, “it still came as a shock, and when the moment comes, it still comes far too soon, and I feel it first and foremost as a loss of my friend, a wonderful friend and family man.”
Roeper told EW it has been “remarkable” seeing the “outpouring of sympathy, the attention” on Ebert’s career in the past day since the Chicago Sun-Times first reported his death on Thursday. While notable filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and even President Barack Obama released statements in memoriam of the celebrated film critic, Roeper has also heard from “15-year-olds who say they want to become movie critics or they want to become filmmakers in great part because they were such great fans of Roger’s work on television and his writing as well.”
Roeper, who continues to write for the Sun-Times and also appears on ReelzChannel, explained that Ebert was able to touch such a wide audience because “he had a scholar’s knowledge of film and this amazing capacity to discuss films in the most minute, sophisticated detail, but he also had this very every-man appeal, and he never wrote down or talked down to movie-goers. I think a lot of people who saw him when he first started coming on television [would] see him and Gene Siskel and they’d say, ‘Hey, they don’t look like movie stars. They look just like regular people. They look like my uncle or my dad or my grandpa.’ He had that universal appeal where you just felt like you were having a conversation with a friend.”
In addition to learning from that conversational style, Roeper also felt Ebert renewed his own love of movies.
“When I started doing the show with Roger, he had been [reviewing films] for 30 years, and he still had more passion for the movies than I did, and that was just great to be around,” Roeper said. “When we’d go to the Sundance Film Festival or it was the start of the summer blockbuster season or the Oscars season, he was like a kid on Christmas morning. He was so excited about the movies. He was a true fan of the movies.”
Among Roeper’s favorite memories of Ebert were watching films in screening rooms with him and hearing his stories of spending time with actors like John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, but Roeper looks especially fondly back on his experiences taping At the Movies with Ebert — which sometimes featured the two critics on the exact same page about a film, and sometimes had them completely disagreeing in intelligent but also playful arguments.
“The one thing of course we never did after seeing a movie together was talk about the movie. We’d talk about anything but the movie because we wanted to save that for the show, and the truth was we never ever knew what the other guy thought when we went in to tape the show. I never knew what his opinion was. So you’d get that natural reaction,” Roeper recalled.
“I learned early on it was a big mistake to try to anticipate what he’d think. People would say, ‘Well, Roeper, he probably likes more mainstream stuff, and Ebert’s the film scholar.’ It really wouldn’t go that way. I would see something and think, ‘Oh he’s gonna hate this,’ and then he’d come out and say, ‘This was a great time at the movies! It was mindless escapism, but I loved it.’ And I’d be like, ‘Who are you? How did I not see that coming?’”
For more about the life and career of Roger Ebert, read EW’s obituary here.
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome
More than just a great critic, Roger Ebert redefined movie criticism for the blockbuster age
Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and others reflect on the career and life of Roger Ebert
Werner Herzog on Roger Ebert, ‘the good soldier of cinema’ — EXCLUSIVE