When Gene Siskel died in 1999, I was working as a producer on Siskel & Ebert, the syndicated TV show he shared with Roger Ebert. I remember Roger being badly shaken, but he had barely any time to grieve, given the immediate challenge of keeping the show on the air. He read and watched all the memorials, appreciating all the kind words and fond remembrances. At the same time he had little patience for mawkish sentiment, and none for poor reporting. After a while he began to fume privately over the more saccharine tributes, resenting that they made Gene out to be some kind of saint. As all of us who worked on the show knew, he certainly wasn't.
I couldn't help but think of this last week as I waded through the sea of tributes that followed Roger's death. Television is an intimate medium that encourages viewers to think they actually know the people beamed or streamed into their homes. The love they feel for TV icons is often little more than a projection of their own needs and desires. I remember one longtime fan of Siskel & Ebert writing to say that Roger had upset her by stating his politics during an episode—as if he could divorce what he had to say about movies from who he was.
One of Roger's mentors and dearest pals, the late Dusty Cohl (cofounder of the Festival of Festivals, which later became the Toronto International Film Festival), once told me that Roger's friends loved him understanding who he really was. For all his wit, insight, writing craft, and missionary zeal for film, Roger could also be loud, rude, blunt, cutting, and imperious, not to mention stubborn beyond reason (especially in his early years as a broadcaster). He always insisted he was right, even when he was wrong. He and Gene were easily offended, and they held grudges. Their grievances would carry over from one taping day to the next. Any given week might become a home-for-the-holidays situation, with one family member firebombing another. This made for great TV, and it made the Siskel & Ebert set a fascinating place to work—as long as you knew when to duck.
A critic and journalist should be antiauthoritarian, and Roger was fearless when he took on Hollywood, the MPAA ratings board, and practices like the colorization of black-and-white films. He seldom hesitated to bite the hand that fed him: no one in management could tell him what to write, and he wasn't shy about criticizing the set or theme music. Back in the old days, when the original At the Movies show was owned by Tribune Entertainment and taped at WGN-TV, Gene and Roger invariably arrived much later than their makeup call and might spend as long as eight hours recording a 30-minute program. Most of that time they spent arguing with and hurling comedic insults at the production staff, to the great amusement of the technicians being paid a union wage to stand around and laugh.
When the show was bought by Buena Vista Television, schedules became tighter, but the guys still loved to hold court with the crew. Roger might needle Gene about his baldness, barking, "Comb your hair, Gene—not that one, the other one." Gene might observe that Roger's brown, plus-sized sweater made him look like a mudslide. And so it went, year after year, until Gene fell ill.
That seems so long ago now. A generation of Roger's fans had no exposure to him in his early years; they caught up with him after he'd become one of the elder statesmen of film criticism. Slimmed down and dressed better, thanks to the influence of his wife, Chaz, he began to acquire a measure of the elegance that had always been associated with his writing. He started talking more about how much he missed Gene. And then he stopped talking, after cancer cost him his jaw. But he communicated through his computer and through hand gestures, and his attitude throughout his slow physical decline was often astonishingly upbeat.
He still had a temper, though. In 2010, while producing the pilot episode of Ebert Presents At the Movies, his return to public television, he became managing editor for a group of contributors, going over their copy and coaching them on the set. When something failed to meet his high standards, he would pound on the arms of his chair in the control room to express his concerns to the producers. He knew what he wanted.
This was the Roger Ebert that I knew: always feisty, even in the face of great obstacles. I will miss him.