By William Wolf


The film world and beyond have already weighed in with a justified avalanche of salutes to Roger Ebert for his achievements as a critic who loved movies and became the most famous film critic of our time. While adding my voice to the mourning and to the praise, I would also like to share some personal memories of Roger.

I first met Roger when we happened to be in Venice in the early stage of his career, each of us on respective assignments. We had a few dinners together seated outdoors at charming Italian restaurants, and I enjoyed getting acquainted with him. For one thing, he was a wonderful raconteur. He could tell a story or a joke triggered by almost any subject that arose. He had a bon vivant quality that was immediately striking and likable, and his enthusiasm for movies was evident.

Another special occasion comes to mind. Later, in 1992, when he and his beloved Chaz, the Chicago lawyer Chaz Hammel-Smith, had just been married, they combined their honeymoon with a work trip aboard the QE2 on a voyage to England. Roger was booked to lecture on film as part of the ship’s cultural program for guests. It so happened that I was also booked on the same crossing to lecture on film on different days. Roger was the kind of guy who as a colleague attended my lectures. Not every colleague would have done that, especially one who by that time was as famous as Roger. I, of course, reciprocated.

We were seated near each other in the dining room, and Roger and Chaz were elatedly celebrating their marriage, and my wife Lillian and I looked forward to dinner conversations with them and the opportunity to get to know Chaz. But between our respective tables sat a New York doctor and his wife. We wanted them to switch so we could dine side by side, but they refused, so Lillian and I talked to Roger and Chaz across the table of the doctor and his spouse. They kept trying to get into the conversation, enjoying their opportunity given Roger’s fame. Roger sometimes recalled that occasion when we met as the years went by, his raconteur-like telling escalating so that eventually the doctor had become a proctologist.

Sometimes I would see Roger at voting sessions of the National Society of Film Critics, and I would often see him at the Toronto Film Festival. I would enjoy hearing his anecdotes when there was social time. I recall that once, in a taxi ride together, he mentioned that he had some problems that would require surgery. He didn’t make a big deal of it. That turned out to be his ongoing struggle with cancer.

What I now especially remember about Roger is his fantastic courage and determination to keep working, his spirits lifted by his devoted Chaz. As successive operations chipped away at his face and jaw and he could no longer speak, he would write notes. When we met at Toronto and I said hello, he would give me a hearty thumbs up. One time when we were going up the stairs at a screening in a theater, he unabashedly extended his arm for an assist. He insisted on reviewing films as always right until the end.

Despite the sad reality of someone whose look changed so radically from his former appearance, so familiar to American television audiences, the formidable courage that he exhibited earned new respect. The way in which he battled his infirmity and continued to work added immeasurably to his stature as a human being, apart from all he had achieved professionally. Roger was indeed a very special man to remember on all counts. I’m so happy and honored that I had the pleasure of knowing him. Posted April 8, 2013.


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