Editor's note: Ebertfest emcee Chaz Ebert announced late Wednesday that Patton Oswalt had to cancel his Ebertfest appearances. He is tied up in New York, shooting the Ben Stiller-directed "Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
A movie buff, Patton Oswalt loves "Kind Hearts and Coronets," the 1949 black British comedy in which Alec Guinness plays the eight heirs and heiresses of the D'Ascoyne family.
So when asked to appear in person with the movie "Big Fan" at Roger Ebert's Film Festival, Oswalt agreed and went a step further.
The actor, writer and standup comedian told Ebertfest organizers he wanted to choose a film to show to university students and then discuss it with them afterward.
"Maybe it's not getting the attention it should be getting, and maybe a younger generation is not getting it," Oswalt said of his reasons for picking "Kind Hearts and Coronets." "It shows the roots of comedy today. I think a lot of modern comedic acting was invented by Alec Guinness. He really created a new screen comedy that led to Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais."
Oswalt will screen "Kind Hearts" at 10:30 p.m. Thursday at the Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus. Geared toward students, among whom Oswalt is popular, the screening is free and open to the public, too, as an unofficial part of Ebertfest, which opens Wednesday evening at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
For Ebertfest itself, Oswalt, as well as director Robert Siegel, will appear on stage after "Big Fan" is shown at 1 p.m. Thursday. The 2009 independent comedy-drama, written and directed by Siegel, stars Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, the self-described "world's biggest New York Giants fan."
"In seeing 'Big Fan,' I was struck by how deeply he penetrated to the heart of the character, sidestepping obvious openings for easy comedy and asking himself what many of us must have wondered: Who are those people who seem to live on sports talk radio as all-knowing experts on first-name terms with the host?" Ebert wrote. "'Big Fan' illustrates something I believe: The more specific a performance is, the more universal it can become."
Oswalt plans to stick around here Friday, the day after his festival appearances.
"It's always been a dream of mine to go to a movie festival and walk around and watch movies," he said. "I'm usually at a festival with a movie and to do press."
The 43-year-old actor has appeared in numerous television shows — he was Spence on "The King of Queens" for nine seasons — and more than 20 movies since the mid-1990s, when he began what would turn out to be a successful career as a stand-up comedian.
He can't remember now exactly how his acting career was launched.
"It was a thing that just sort of happened; it happened gradually. I think people saw me doing standup and started giving me roles."
One of the recent ones was that of Matt Freehauf in the 2011 feature "Young Adult," starring Charlize Theron. Patton received a Critics' Choice Award nomination for it.
The critics also praised him in "Big Fan," which made its debut at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival but received limited release. His turn as Aufiero earned Oswalt a Gotham Award nomination.
Oswalt feels gratified and flattered that Ebert picked "Big Fan" for Ebertfest, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
"I was really proud of that movie. I thought Robert Siegel wrote and directed a great movie, and I was lucky enough to be part of it," he said.
Oswalt, who lives in Los Angeles, will begin shooting another movie later this month; he declined to discuss it.
During a telephone interview earlier this month, he said he was "doing a little work, just kind of messing around with some stuff."
He's mainly writing material for a new comedy album — he's made four so far. For his last, "Finest Hour," Oswalt received his second Grammy nomination for best comedy album.
He said he didn't know exactly what the topics would be on the upcoming recording. He takes a similar approach to his live acts.
"I don't know what it will be until it comes out of me on stage," he said. "I have a general idea of the topic, but I kind of write on stage."
Oswalt was born in Virginia, a son of a career Marine officer who named him after Army Gen. George S. Patton. He said he had a happy childhood that fed his imagination. He also was — no big surprise — a class clown.
"I was part of a group of class clowns. That probably prepared me to be a stand-up better than being 'the' class clown," he said.
He started doing stand-up at age 19 while in college, studying English literature.
"I just started doing open mics, and it just clicked," he said.
Because of his acting career, he's not doing as much now as when he first started. But he still tours extensively — around 150 dates a year "if you're talking times on stage."
As a comedian he covers topics such as pop culture, American excess, materialism, foreign policy and religion — he's an atheist and, like Ebert, a big fan of writer Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist who died in December.
Oswalt's influences are "way too many to name."
"Ebert was a big influence on me, especially the way he would approach the logic of films and the way films relate to life," he said. "He was a huge, huge influence on me, especially when he planted a link to an essay by Samuel Clemens — Mark Twain — on James Fenimore Cooper and his literary career.
"Roger Ebert kept a lifeline between me and Mark Twain at his snarkiest."