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Film critic Roger Ebert remembered

The news of Roger Ebert’s death came too soon.

On Tuesday, Roger announced through his blog he was reducing his workload because his cancer had returned. With characteristic optimism, he said he was ready for his third bout with the deadly disease. He reported this on the eve of his 46th anniversary as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic.

Then on Thursday, before any of us except perhaps Roger himself was prepared for it, came the news he was gone.

Like any film critic who works in the Chicago area, I knew Roger Ebert. For more than 20 years, I watched movies in the same small screening room off Michigan Avenue as Roger, often just a few seats away. Once he noticed my laptop’s wallpaper and said, “Jeff, aren’t you a little old for Spider-Man?”

As soon as news of Roger’s death swept across the Internet, tributes poured in. From President Obama to Steven Spielberg came words of praise and mourning. So much already has been written in the past few days that I won’t recap his prolific and persuasive writing career or recount the courage and dignity he displayed in his fight with the cancer that robbed him of his voice and altered his appearance. The world knows all that already.

What I want the world to know about Roger Ebert is that he treated the rest of his fellow film critics as colleagues and equals, though none of us could ever equal him.

He was always ready to share a joke (usually bad), answer questions or give advice. On several occasions, I watched teenagers approach him in theater lobbies asking how they, too, could become film critics. Roger would graciously make the time to talk with them.

I was a teenager myself when I discovered Roger. I grew up in Erie, Pa., where the local paper didn’t have a film critic and only occasionally would run wire reviews. I was a movie nut in a film criticism desert. Then one day, a friend said, “You have to watch this show on channel 54 (Erie’s PBS outlet). It has these two movie critics from Chicago and they fight all the time. It’s hilarious.”

The show was “Sneak Previews,” and the other movie critic from Chicago was Gene Siskel. My friends and I watched their show religiously, and the next day we would trade our opinions of Gene and Roger’s opinions. And when they fought, it was hilarious.

I wonder how many people today understand the revolutionary nature of Gene and Roger’s show. Here were two film critics seriously discussing movies for a full half-hour with no time wasted on Hollywood gossip. Before Gene and Roger, TV film critics based everything on their half-baked personas. Gene Shalit with his bad puns. Rex Reed with his haute smugness. Gene and Roger came in the door with their professionalism, expertise and love of film. From that material, they molded their own broadcast personalities, which would prove to be formidable.

I am grateful that in those early days Siskel and Ebert would champion smaller films. Without them, I doubt I would have ventured to see “Gregory’s Girl,” which remains one of my three favorite movies. Indeed, without them, I doubt a little Scottish film about a gangly teenager befuddled by love and soccer would have played in towns like Erie, Pa.

In the early 1990s, I found it surreal I was regularly viewing films in the same room with the two men who inspired me as a teenager. Gene was more private, but Roger, along with his wonderful wife, Chaz, was a friend to all. I will never forget that when Michael Bay attacked me for my review of “Transformers,” Roger Ebert came to my defense in his Movie Answer Man column.

The death of Roger Ebert is a huge loss. The film world will feel it for years. Chicago will feel it for decades. I am shaken and saddened by the news. But I know no one will feel the loss more than Chaz. I offer all my thoughts and prayers to this remarkable woman and her family.

To Roger Ebert, I can only say thanks. He has given me, and the world, so much. Back in the days when he could still talk, people would enter the screening room and ask Roger, whose regular seat was next to the door, how he was doing. Invariably, he would reply, “Tip top.”

In the spirit of Roger Ebert, let us resolve to make every day tip top.

• Jeffrey Westhoff reviews movies for Shaw Media.

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