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Roger Ebert, a man of the people

Roger Ebert circ2006.  |  Eileen Ryan photo

Roger Ebert circa 2006. | Eileen Ryan photo

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Updated: May 13, 2013 6:09AM



As his editor since 1994, it was my pleasure and privilege to work with Roger Ebert, who was a Frank Capra character at heart: ever amiable but always vigilant.

Much has been said already, so much so that it would probably embarrass him. But to borrow one of his many aphorisms, “no good movie is too long ... .” I worked with Roger since the mid-’80s in various capacities, and over time, his principles of professional and personal conduct became as clear as a frame of 70mm film. I don’t think he’d mind if I shared them now.

He was unflappable in the face of pressure:

Roger was amazingly fast and prolific on deadline. Racing back after a late-night screening, he could pound out a word-perfect review (typing with two fingers — he never learned how to touch type) in 30 minutes or less. Or when the greats died, all you had to do was pick up the phone and he’d deliver, seemingly instantly. All he’d ask: “What’s my deadline and how many words?”

But on Oscar nights, he could get a little rattled. One year, when the ceremony was really droning on and he was way behind, he shouted into the phone, so loud everyone back at 401 N. Wabash could hear over the din of a thousand other journalists backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, racing to file: “Your deadlines mean NOTHING to me!”

Truer words never spoken, but the paper still had to come out the next day. Somehow, though, he composed himself and managed to file at the last second. But that incident gave us one of our all-time favorite memories. When we’d get stressed out after a long day in the features department, we’d often turn to one another and yell: Your deadlines mean nothing to me! It was like our own “Serenity Now” pledge.

He was unswervingly loyal: If you had a friend in Roger, you had a friend for life. That extended to perhaps the most important institution in his life, the Sun-Times. After he hit the big time, he had many opportunities to take his famous thumbs elsewhere, but he rebuffed those offers. When high-profile colleagues bailed out after tabloid titan Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1984, Roger insisted on staying put: “No one’s going to take my newspaper away from me.”

He was willing to change his mind: Many have written about how quickly Roger seized upon possibilities of the Internet. True, he was an early adapter, with a CompuServe address way back in the ’80s and his trusty Radio Shack “Trash 80” laptop always at his side. Initially, though, he had no use for social media. “I’ll never be on Facebook,” went many an email, “and I promise you I’ll never be a Twit.”

When he realized how Twitter and other social media tools gave him a voice, after cancer robbed him of his, he reversed himself. As for Twitter, he quickly became such a master that it was, as Bogie said to Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

He respected his editors’ input and guidance: Roger never forgot that even the greatest writers could benefit from the editing process. He was pretty much a self-starter and independent entity, but he always appreciated an assist from anyone along the production trail. If you’ll look at the forwards of his books, he always thanked his editors, from the chiefs of staff to the rim rats.

Above all, he was an advocate for cinema, and a champion of social justice: Through his reviews and other writings, he supported the early efforts of now-legendary or influential filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee and Michael Moore, along with a younger generation of talents such as David Gordon Green, Julie Dash and Ramin Bahrani. These directors, whose works display a strong humanist streak, found a devoted supporter in Roger.

He loved the classic films that bore out this philosophy, such as works by Frank Capra and John Ford. Every Christmas Eve, I try to watch a classic film with my family, and in 2011, it was Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). In an email message next day to Roger, I remarked that it gave me one of my best Christmastime experiences ever, because Ford’s film really embodies the holiday spirit (more so, to my mind, than obvious examples like “It’s a Wonderful Life”).

He wrote back: “That is one great film.” As a child of the Midwest, whose parents lived through the Great Depression, he identified with the downtrodden Joads. He also agreed with me that it has one of the best closing speeches ever committed to celluloid (“They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”).

Others have remarked that when Roger approaches the Pearly Gates, he’ll be greeted by St. Peter with two thumbs way, WAY up. Or perhaps with a joke that the balcony is now open in the Great Revival House in the sky. But for his longtime colleagues in the features department, we’re praying that Roger shouts out just once more: “Your deadlines mean NOTHING to me.”



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