Thursday morning the announcement came that famed film reviewer Roger Ebert passed away, or in his own parlance, “took a leave of presence”. We meet a lot of people in our lives but very few actually affect your life in great ways. First, and foremost everyone’s biological parents have the greatest effect since they gave you life and their genes, whether they remain in your life or not. The parents or those who raised you, your siblings and others very close are huge influences, teaching you life lessons that determine who you are as an adult. Most of us have teachers or coaches who motivated us or molded us or pushed us into a certain career or direction in life that would determine a lot of what would happen the rest of our lives. Then there are people, many of which we may have never met in person, who sway us in a way that causes us to do things that we may never have done without their influence – Roger Ebert was such a person for me.
I did meet Mr. Ebert and spent an evening with him, along with actor/director Dennis Hopper (Giant, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet) and David Carradine (Kung Fu, Kill Bill). It was 1982 and I was working with the USA Film Festival in Dallas. I was a film student at Southern Methodist University and after working for the festival since I was a Freshman I was able to get the coveted student position as a driver – we got to drive around movie professionals in donated luxury cars. Not a bad gig. For film students this gave you unprecedented access to those who could possibly help your career or at least share a story or two.
For a couple of days I was assigned Dennis Hopper, who was promoting an independent film that he directed called Out of the Blue. David Carradine was also screening a film that he directed, staring himself and Barbara Hershey called Americana and Roger Ebert I believe was either acting as a host or mediating Q&A or a panel of some sort, I don’t remember. Somehow the three arranged to go to dinner that evening and Mr. Hopper invited me to join them, which I thought was cordial of him. Through our conversations I learned that he had been out of rehab and off drugs for about a year but that it had been a tough road. I had great respect for Mr. Hopper after that – he was very intelligent and respectful of others and understood that he had a disease he had to fight the rest of his life – addiction.
Joining us for dinner was Shannon Wynne, a Dallas club and restaurateur whose father developed the original Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. He had invited himself, I believe, and asked to come along with us in the car, trying to act as a host of sorts for the City of Dallas. We ended up at the San Francisco Rose, a bar-restaurant with a back room where we ended up not too far from the campus. I don’t recall how the others got there; only that Ebert was the last to arrive. It’s been a long time so my memory is sketchy about the conversation that evening but I do remember David Carradine was very odd – soft spoken and quite personable – but went on and on about different topics in a kind of stream of consciousness manner that probably only made sense to him. I have no idea if he was high or not but something told me that he just had that kind of quirky personality where you weren’t sure if he was a genius or simply off his rocker. Gary Busey’s behavior on Celebrity Apprentice this season, reminds me of how Carradine acted that night.
Roger Ebert was very talkative and dominated the evening’s conversation. He fawned all over Hopper, treating him like an anointed prince of film. I could tell Hopper was annoyed but he never said anything. I remained mostly silent, soaking it all up and enjoying the free steak – which for a college film student used to eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese made illegally on a hot plate in the dorm room – was a great thing not to be taken lightly.
Also that evening I arranged with Mr. Ebert to pick him up at his hotel early the next morning in order to transport him to DFW Airport to catch his flight back to Chicago. I had to get up extra early in order to pick up the Mercedes that had been donated and then get downtown to the hotel by 6am. I got there an extra 20 minutes early only to discover that Mr. Ebert had already checked out and had taken a cab to the airport. Boy I was pissed because we had talked in person about the arrangement and he knew I was going out of my way to help him.
I had been a fan of Roger Ebert, along with his screen partner Gene Siskel, from their original PBS show Sneak Previews, which later turned into the syndicated show Siskel & Ebert At The Movies. The next bit of influence Mr. Ebert had on me had to deal with a film review show that was a direct rip off of his show that appeared on the SMU campus cable channel and starred one of our professors, Roger Burke, and the School of the Arts public relations director – that show was called Movie Scoops. A year later I took over as producer of the film review show but wanting to put my stamp on it changed the name of the show to Let’s Go To The Movies. I know, I know, I probably should have kept the original name. I loved movies and that show, inspired by Mr. Ebert, was my first adventure into producing a television show.
It would be years later that Mr. Ebert would change my life again when I began writing movie reviews for some both print and online publications. I tended to write reviews in a similar style as he, being informative and straightforward, never pretentious. He became America’s film critic. Somebody who could let you know what films to go see and though he loved what many would call high-brow or intellectual films, he not only wrote the screenplay to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Corman but many of his favorite films were populous, popcorn movies made for the masses. And really isn’t that what movies are for – everyone.