Roger Ebert made me want to be a movie critic.
Watching him on TV with Gene Siskel was fascinating. They talked passionately about movies, something I was passionate about, too. They argued their points and got in each other's faces. And you got the sense that it wasn't an act, that they really did think each could make the other change his mind if the argument was forceful enough.
Also, they were from Chicago. The Midwest. The middle of America. They weren't representing the media elite of New York or the movie-industry sycophancy of Los Angeles. They were movie critics for the rest of us.
So watching Roger and Gene planted the seed that this was a job that a movie-loving kid from Spokane, Wash., could actually do.
Of all the words I've heard describe Roger Ebert since I learned of his death on Thursday, the one that keeps rolling over in my mind is "generous." Because Roger was many things – a critic, an advocate, a trailblazer, a humanist, a philosopher – but first and foremost he was a generous soul.
I learned this before I ever actually met Roger. When I started as The Salt Lake Tribune's movie critic, I also contributed to an upstart website called Film.com. (The site fell apart in 2000, and was later resurrected by its owner, RealNetworks. I'm not involved with it now.) Roger, in a tech column he wrote for Yahoo! Life magazine, wrote a glowing review of Film.com and listed all the critics by name – including me. It was a thrill to know that the most-famous movie critic in America knew my name.
A few years later, at the Sundance Film Festival, I finally worked up the nerve to introduce myself to Roger. I said, "Mr. Ebert, hello, my name's Sean Means." He said, quite cheerfully, "Sean P. Means?!?" – emphasizing the middle initial as he shook my hand enthusiastically. I'm still stunned at the fact that he recognized my name and byline, and treated me like a colleague.
He treated me that way in 2005, when I ran into him in the Sundance press lounge one morning. I said hello, and he wanted to talk about movies. Specifically, he asked me if I had seen Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know." I said I saw it the day before, but I was still sorting out my feelings about it in my head. He said, "It's the best movie I've seen at the festival." He didn't say it with any arrogance, as if daring puny critics to disagree with him. He said it like someone who had just seen something amazing, and he wanted to share the news with everyone he could. And, once I worked out the movie in my head, I found he was right – it was the best thing at the festival that year.
One year, Roger was in line a few spaces behind me for a screening at the Egyptian. While we waited, two college kids were pushing a petition to demand the Pulitzer Prize committee add a category for screenplays. When they got to me, I told the kids, "Ask the guy about five behind me – he's got a Pulitzer." As I recall, he happily obliged the kids by signing.
Once, Roger wrote about his annual pre-Sundance ritual of visiting the 7-Eleven to buy snacks, and my wife, Leslie, emailed him with her own story of her yearly efforts to stock me up with healthy food while I'm in Park City. Roger wrote back, calling it a lovely letter, and asking if he could run it in his "Answer Man" column.
I was in the Park City Library Center auditorium at Sundance 2002 when Roger came, loudly, to the defense of Justin Lin and "Better Luck Tomorrow." Another critic had taken Lin and his cast to task for making a movie about Asian-Americans that wasn't uplifting to Asian-Americans. Roger spoke up, arguing forcefully that Lin & Co. had the right to make any damn movie they wanted to make.
And I was in the Egyptian in 2010 when Roger, in his first trip back to Sundance after the health crisis that left him unable to speak or eat, sat in on Robert Redford's opening press conference. I almost didn't notice Roger there, but Redford did – and Redford came down from the stage after the press conference to shake Roger's hand and personally welcome him back to Park City. Roger noted, with some delight, that the festival guide had a giant "RE" on its cover – which officially was tying into the festival's theme of "revolt," "renewal" and other "re-" words, but had the happy coincidence of being Roger's initials. (Alas, it was the last time Ebert attended Sundance.)
One more story that attests to Roger's generosity of spirit. When Roger published his memoir, Life Itself, in 2011, he agreed to help an independent bookstore, Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., by signing as many copies as they could sell. Word got out online, and the store sold more than 600 of them, and he signed bookplates for each. (He and his assistant couldn't handle the physical burden of lugging actual books around.)
Leslie bought one of those copies for me as a Christmas present – and on the form, she gave only my name and job title. This is what Roger wrote: "To Sean P. Means, dear friend and colleague, Roger. 11/11/11."
Roger, thank you a million times over for your friendship, your inspiration and your support. All I can do is try to be as good a critic, and a person, as you have been.