I don't remember the first time I saw "Sneak Previews" on Public Television, but I know I was in grade school. I was what they used to call a "latchkey kid," a babysitter-free grade schooler with a key around my neck.
During my "wonder years," public television was a real buddy of mine. No commercials, amazing programming and the occasional unobstructed view of an actual penis really sealed the deal for me. "Sneak Previews" was definitely a standing date. I loved the way Roger Ebert loved the movies. I liked the way he painted a picture in my head and made me understand what was great about the movie; what made it worthy of my (then) five bucks.
What I loved even more was when he hated a movie. Nobody could calmly adjust himself in his seat and verbally beat the crap out of a movie like that man. The years they had Spot the Wonder Dog and the "Dog of the Week" were the best. Don't get me wrong, Gene Siskel was a knowledgeable guy and a great counterpoint and all, but he always looked like the long-suffering straight man. Roger Ebert had snark and humor and looked like someone who dearly loved what he did.
When I went off to college, I had the good fortune to see him in person at private movie screenings. He inspired me to become a movie reviewer, and I did it a few times for the Roosevelt Torch. Despite his outward nerdy demeanor, his swagger was undeniable. He once strode into a screening with a bucket of chicken and a "get at me bro" look. Looking back, it was a bit dickish, but us college kids from school papers, cowering as he walked by, thought he was the freakin' man.
The last time I saw him in public was for a free screening two years ago. The crowd was grousing about the movie running late and when the organizer came in and apologized for the delay, saying Roger Ebert (who was not at all well and looked it) was having difficulty getting up to the theater. We all were thinking it, but one guy actually said "Well, why didn't you just say so?" He was Roger Freakin' Ebert. Of course we would wait for him. We were thrilled to know he was coming.
We crossed paths a number of times, but I never met the guy. Everyone has that person they admire so much they are scared to approach. He definitely that guy for me. He shaped my attitude toward film viewing and did it with passion and humor and the right amount of snark. No theater reviewer is ever going to be as famous as him. Not anytime soon. Best damn mentor I ever had and I never officially met the guy.
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