By Stuart Cleland, RI Senior Video Producer. From 1987-2003, Cleland worked with film critic Roger Ebert on the television programs “Siskel & Ebert” and “Ebert & Roeper.” Ebert, who died 4 April, was a Rotary Scholar to South Africa in 1965 and taped a tribute to Rotary in 1998, portions of which are above.
I started reading Roger Ebert in the 1960s. I started watching him in the 1970s. And much to my surprise, I started working with him in the 1980s.
I was lucky enough to join the “Siskel & Ebert” show during its golden age. With their trademark “Two thumbs up/down” reviews, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were certainly the most well known and arguably the most influential film critics in America. The show appeared in almost 200 markets. Gene and Roger were quoted in newspaper and television ads, and regularly appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and David Letterman’s “Late Night.”
In person they were a bit daunting. Gene was tall and constantly in motion: taking phone calls, meeting people about stories, rushing off to his office at the Chicago Tribune. Roger was chubby and more laid back, but equally driven. They could be acerbic; neither suffered fools gladly. But both of them were dedicated to the show, and both of them loved the movies.
People ask, did they like each other or hate each other? The answer is that they liked each other and hated each other. They gloried in their fame and influence but resented being lumped together as “Siskel and Ebert,” or worse, “Siskbert.” In other words, they were human.
Gene had plenty of friends, but he could be standoffish, and sometimes seemed wary of letting people get too close. Roger, on the other hand, was gregarious to a fault. A born raconteur, he loved being the center of attention, and surrounded himself with friends and colleagues. A small-town boy, he was well grounded and never forgot where he came from. But he wasn’t afraid to try new things, and believed that new experiences were essential for growth and happiness. These qualities made him an excellent candidate for study abroad, and in the video he taped for Rotary he talks about how his year as an Ambassadorial Scholar helped give him a “global outlook” and even encouraged his love of film. He praises Rotary for creating programs that encourage young people to “speak up, get involved, and widen their horizons,” and for making it possible for them “to see the world from more than one point of view.”
Roger Ebert wasn’t a Rotarian, but at his best he exemplified Rotary’s ideals: honesty, friendliness, an open mind, high ethical standards, and a kind, generous spirit.
He set an example for me and others who were lucky enough to know him, and for millions more who cherished his love of movies, and of life.