Famed film critic Roger Ebert was laid to rest today. He died on my birthday. It's ironic. Two of the most influential men in my life died on my birthday. Martin Luther King is the other. King taught me to be fearless and that no matter what, if the cause is right, it is worth the pain.
That philosophy has served me well. And it has -- as it did with MLK -- caused me considerable pain and personal loss. But doing what is right always takes precedence over what is comfortable.
Roger Ebert is responsible -- along with his former TV co-host Gene Siskel -- for me becoming a movie critic. I first heard of Siskel and Ebert in the late 1970s when a reporter friend of mine would leave city council meetings early to go catch a public TV show criticizing movies.
I have always loved movies, and it made me curious. One day, I went with him.
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Siskel and Ebert blew my mind.
I loved the interaction, and the fighting was the best. It was so intense that steam practically flew from the screen. Once in a while, the pair would end up on a program like the Late Show or The Tonight Show. Siskel dominated. You could see Ebert trying to get a word in once in a while, but Siskel just would not shut up.
You could see Ebert was mad, but he had such class that he kept his anger to himself. At least he did most of the time. The two had a love-hate relationship but tremendous respect for each other.
When Siskel died, I think a part of Ebert died with him. Other critics helped with the program, and finally Richard Roeper permanently settled in Siskel's chair. But it was never the same.
Ebert suffered serious health issues, including the removal of much of his jaw due to cancer. He courageously continued to be seen in public and to do what he loved most. Ebert was an incredible example to all who suffer debilitating injury or disfigurement. I admire him almost as much for that as I do for his writing.
After the first few viewings of At the Movies, I realized being a movie critic is a pretty good gig. In the early 1990s, I convinced the now-late Terry Bailey and the now-late Jim Swartz of KEY radio to let me be their film critic. That led to my job at the Tri-City Herald -- one I have kept for 22 years.
While it's not as glamorous as Ebert's gig, and the studios aren't moving heaven and Earth to make sure I see a film, reviewing movies has been the most rewarding part of a long and interesting career that took me from radio to public relations to communications to sitting at home and working for myself.
Siskel was a more meat-and-potatoes writer like me. Just the facts and a nice turn of a phrase once in a while. Ebert, on the other hand, brilliantly analyzed film and had a fabulous command of language, description and human insight.
I envy writers like that.
A few years ago, I began posting my reviews to RottenTomatoes. It's mostly a disaster area packed with hundreds of reviews from critics all over the place. One day in the first year of reporting to RT, I ended up next to Roger Ebert. My review and Roger Ebert's -- side by side.
I was ecstatic! I called everyone I knew and demanded that they log on to RT and see Roger and me together.
It happened one more time that first year and never happened again. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure Ebert kept posting on RT.
I am in awe, and always will be in awe, of Roger Ebert. To paraphrase the ending of their famed TV show, the balcony is definitely and now forever closed.
Ebert probably didn't notice those two dates when our names were together on RottenTomatoes. He likely never knew I even existed. And he most certainly never knew what an influence he had on my life and on the lives of so many others who were inspired to critique movies because he paved the way.
Thank you, Roger. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You gave me the best possible career, and in my life, you will always be a two thumbs up.