Roger Ebert's death leaves an empty aisle seat.
Death sometimes comes like a thief in the night, and in no case was that truer than the sudden passing Thursday of 70-year-old film critic Roger Ebert.
People knew that Ebert, one of the favorite sons of Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, was ill and that he had been living bravely with a multi-year health nightmare. Still, he had just announced what he called a "leave of presence" the day before, plans for an active semi-retirement. Then, suddenly, he was gone — "no struggle, no pain, just a quiet dignified transition," as his wife Chaz Ebert described it.
What's notable about Ebert, of course, is his life, not his death. An Urbana native who worked at The News-Gazette in his youth, he studied journalism at the UI and went on to work at the Chicago Sun-Times, eventually carving out a niche for himself as the paper's film critic.
He wasn't just any film critic. He turned his passion for movies into a popular position in which he analyzed, explained and judged films for a newspaper audience that grew and grew. He won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and joined with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel to produce a TV show for the Public Broadcasting System and, later, commercial television. International fame and fortune followed.
Ebert became almost as big a star as many of the actors, producers and directors he covered.
Through it all, he never forgot his hometown and his university. He visited regularly and gave generously of his time and money. Most importantly, he joined with the UI and local community leaders to establish what's known as the Roger Ebert Film Festival, an annual five-day spring extravaganza that attracts moviemakers and movie fans from all over the world to Champaign-Urbana.
As the host of Ebertfest, Ebert not only picked the movies but also, until his health problems made it impossible, hosted discussions and question-and-answer sessions with guests who came to the festival simply because Ebert invited them.
There were some great discussions at Ebertfest, but often the most interesting speaker was Ebert himself. One need not have enjoyed any particular film under discussion to appreciate Ebert's ability to analyze and explain what he liked or found interesting about the movie in question. He was a remarkable communicator — articulate, gracious, witty, provocative, entertaining. In a word, he was masterful.
Ebert was highly intelligent and hugely talented. But his bravura performances at Ebertfest stemmed mostly from his passion for movies, a taste that he developed as a youth when he routinely patronized the Princess Theater in downtown Urbana. He loved movies, and he wanted others to see what he saw.
Like all art, film appeals to individual tastes. People know what they like and what they don't like. Ebert liked many movies that regular folks didn't care for. He presented some of them for consideration at Ebertfest. How could it be otherwise? But his offerings — and the discussions afterward — usually provided food for thought about the craft of movie-making.
That's what film criticism is all about, and few were better at it than this local boy who made good.