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In the early days, it was clear Roger Ebert was going to make it big

FILE - This undated file phooriginally released by Disney-ABC Domestic Televisishows movie critics Roger Ebert right Gene Siskel. The Chicago

FILE - This undated file photo originally released by Disney-ABC Domestic Television, shows movie critics Roger Ebert, right, and Gene Siskel. The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that its film critic Roger Ebert died on Thursday, April 4, 2013. He was 70. Ebert and Siskel, who died in 1999, trademarked the "two thumbs up" phrase. (AP Photo/Disney-ABC Domestic Television) ORG XMIT: NYET837

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Updated: April 8, 2013 4:27PM



Framing Roger Ebert. . .

Roger Ebert was a pudgy, nerdy kind of guy when I met him back in the late 1960s; probably going horizontal on a bar stool at O’Rourke’s Pub in Old Town — backdropped by a life-size poster of Brendan Behan spitting in your face.

But even back then, Ebert, the rumpled, intellectual, bespectacled doughboy, stood out.

He had it. You sensed he was going to make it. Many of us were still slogging it out at the legendary City News Bureau before the era of uberjournalism ushered in by the Watergate scandal, but he was on his way.

It was during those early reporting days that Ebert became a regular at O’Rourke’s, a writer’s lair appropriately suffused in cigarette smoke, tall tales and a never-ending supply of amber liquid.

It wasn’t unusual for Ebert to hold court in a wooden booth with his buddies Ed McCahill and Johnny McHugh, a Sligo man from Ireland with the gift of gab. The chat and clink of a few pints was usually accompanied by someone slipping a quarter in the jukebox to play “The Wild Colonial Boy” or the Beatles’ “Revolution”.

Although fiery fellow Chicago Sun-Times Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Fitzpatrick generally held sway as the bar’s sultan of swat, Ebert could be found at a front pub table listening and lecturing.

“He always had time for everybody,” said former Chicago Tribune reporter Dave Gilbert. “He could have been a know-it-all, but he wasn’t. He was a great raconteur. It wasn’t unusual for us to close down the bar after a night of conversation.”

The writer James Joyce, whose poster also once graced O’Rourke’s, once wrote: “He is a stranger to me now who was my friend.” Roger was once a friend, but more a stranger. But the days of O’Rourke’s and the whisper of a time that was our journalistic beginning still linger.

Ebert, who stopped drinking long ago, used to claim a college professor told him every writer had at least 100,000 words of bull - - - - to dig out of their system before they could really write.

Maybe that’s why Roger — an intellectual who was remarkable in his ability to overcome a disability caused by his struggle with cancer — once ventured into the exotic by writing screenplays for sexploitation/soft-core porn filmmaker Russ Meyer, who produced “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.”

To me, Ebert was an enigma: a brain with a taste for the naughty and bawdy.

He was a journalist who wrote well and elevated the status of our profession; a genius at making remarkable decisions like partnering with Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel to launch a trademark program, “Sneak Previews,” and having the good sense to marry Chaz.

Siskel was the businessman; Ebert was the writer. It was a match made in big-bucks heaven. They had the tricky relationship of night and day personalities. But they respected what each brought to the table.

He was a reverent fan of the Sun-Times, yet he stopped coming into the office long before cancer changed his life. A technological wizard at the computer, he had abandoned the congeniality of an office world long ago.

We started out in this business at the same time; our relationship was based more on compliments than camaraderie. Ironically, I mentioned to someone recently that Roger and I were the only Chicago journalists of our generation still working for one of the two surviving Chicago newspapers.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to the 50-year mark, but I sure wish to hell the fabulous Roger Ebert had.



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