Roger Ebert was the world’s most famous film critic, a star among the celebrities he covered. Yet he never lost his regular-guy touch to be the friend with a trusted opinion on the latest movie.
On Thursday, his reach was reflected in the worldwide reaction to his death, from the White House to the neighborhood homes of his friends, from the newspaper world where he began his career to the online social universe he quickly adapted to and came to dominate.
“For a generation of Americans — and especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Werner Herzog, the celebrated documentarian whose friendship with Ebert spanned four decades, told the Sun-Times that Ebert’s death was “very momentous” in a culture where serious discussion about film was being replaced by vapid celebrity news.
“He was the last one of really big caliber [critics] who was stemming the tide, who was keeping [up] the discourse about cinema,” Herzog said, remembering Ebert as a down-to-earth intellectual with “a wild side,” a man he called “the good soldier of cinema.”
“He was a wounded soldier,” Herzog said. “He was ill and struggled and was still plowing on relentlessly. And that was completely and utterly admirable, and I love him for that.”
The film community weighed in with a flurry of statements and tweets. Actor and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford hailed Ebert as “one of the great champions of freedom of artistic expression.” Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Company, said Ebert was “always on the side of movies that needed an extra push.”
Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, who is working on a documentary based on Ebert’s memoir, said he knows few people with as deep a love for the movies as Ebert.
“I know that’s what kept him going in those last years — his life-or-death passion for movies, and his wonderful wife, Chaz,” Scorsese said. “We all knew that this moment was coming, but that doesn’t make the loss any less wrenching.”
Part of the reason he was so beloved was his broad reach, said Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Siskel Film Center. “Film criticism wasn’t an elitist thing for him. And he was in the forefront of grasping the opportunities of the Internet where he developed a huge audience throughout the world. To generate so much dialogue about film was amazing, and he was the only film critic who really did that.”
The shock of his death also reverberated in his hometown of Urbana, Ill., and his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The whole community is sad,” said Jan Slater, dean of the U. of I.’s College of Media. “We’re so grateful that he was ours and we miss him already.”
Ebert’s wife, Chaz, was singled out by many as his lifelong love, a devoted equal who held steady as Ebert’s health deteriorated.
“There is no question that in the last 10 years, for sure, Chaz Ebert is the reason that Roger has been able to achieve all of the things that he was able to achieve,” said Thea Flaum, the creator and producer of the original show that paired Ebert with Gene Siskel and a longtime friend of the Eberts. “And right up until the very end, Chaz was there caring for him and he for her.”
Chaz Ebert described herself as “devastated” over her husband’s loss.
“We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie,” Chaz Ebert said in a statement. “It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.”
“Roger’s passing is virtually the end of an era,” said Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg. “And now the balcony is closed forever.”
Contributing: Hedy Weiss, Natasha Korecki, Bill Zwecker, Miriam DiNunzio, Tracy Maple