It was Christmas Eve of 1977 and the phone rang many times, but I didn’t hang up. I was calling the Chicago Sun Times and I’d asked to speak to Roger Ebert and had been connected to some phone that I pictured ringing in a classic newsroom. And then a voice.
In the background a party was raging, but over the din the person who picked up heard my request and told me to hold on. The party went on for a few minutes and then a jovial Roger Ebert was on the line.
I was a snarky seventeen-year-old and Rober Ebert was my film critic. I read the Chicago Sun-Times and he was not yet internationally famous, but to me he was plenty famous and my heart raced a little to be speaking with a celebrity.
And then I remembered my mission. “You gave The Gauntlet four stars!” I blurted in outraged disagreement.
“I thought it was a good film,” he said in an even tone.
This was before thumbs up and down, before weekend box-office was reported to the public at large. Back then four stars was like four Michelin stars for a restaurant—reserved for masterpieces, for Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, even Dirty Harry but not… The Gauntlet, a cheesy b-picture.
Roger Ebert listened to my rant and rather kindly said that reviewing movies was a subjective thing. He could see my point and respect my opinion, but he liked the movie and that was why he gave it four stars.
Roger Ebert was a very positive person. He could certainly not like a movie, but he was awfully nice to a random kid interrupting him at his Christmas party.
He politely said he needed to get back to the office Christmas party and we parted ways amicably. I never spoke with him again, but those few moments he took with me made the snow falling out my window in the suburbs of Chicago feel alive with spirit, like James Joyce snowflakes falling on the Sun-Times and on my suburban house, on the good movies and the bad, on the loneliness and on the connections, on the living and the dead.
In being a famous person connected with movies, Roger Ebert, in talking to me, helped form a bridge of belief that something so far away and magical could become a world I might aspire to learn more about, even enter into in that dimly conscious search for community that all outliers face in their lonely corners of experience.
When I heard that Roger Ebert had died, today, I looked him up and learned that we shared a birthday. When we spoke in 1977 he was 35, the virtual half-way mark of what turned out to be a 70 year life.
Taking the perspective that parenting is as much an attitude of caring and connecting as it is of biological reproduction, I felt moved to honor Roger Ebert’s passing. I didn’t always agree with his opinions on movies, but he helped me love movies and learn how to look at them and talk about them and bond, discuss and think about making them.
Movies became my passion, and then my path and then my destiny. In some sense I “failed” to launch a movie career, but I tried my best until I found something else to try my best at, and along the way I met Andy (at a Fellini Screening at Lincoln Center). Thus I’d have to say that we never know what small gestures of kindness will have rippling effects on the lives of others.
And in that spirit I give Roger Ebert, the person, four stars.