Remembering Roger Ebert

Thea Flaum is the producer and creator of the movie-review show with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel that ran for 35 years. She is a long time member of the Board of Governors, currently an Emeritus Trustee, and the former national vice-president of NATAS.

On a warm summer day in 1975, I met Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel at a North Side restaurant for lunch. Roger picked the restaurant because it was close to his house. When he heard this, Gene insisted on picking the restaurant the next time we met. And thus the sparring began — and was to continue non-stop for the next 23 years.

Of course, none of us knew it then.

I was a TV producer on an interesting mission — to create a new series about the movies. Roger loved the idea right away. It was clear to him that television was a perfect way to tell people about the movies because the film clips would show viewers what he was talking about.

2006 Silver Circle

Thea and Roger Ebert at his 2006 induction in the Chicago Silver Circle.

And as any one would have told you back then, it was highly unlikely that two guys from Chicago — Chicago! — were going to become nationally known film critics on PBS. But Roger, Gene and I believed. In fact, shortly after we began, I promised them that one day our show would be the highest rated series on PBS. And, after a few years, it was.

Along the way, Roger and I piled up a lot of memories. He used to arrive at my house on Sunday evenings, teleprompter copy in hand, so we could work on it together. We would sit at my dining room table, while he mastered how to write for TV, and only once during all my editing, did he grumble, “You know, Thea, I do have a Pulitzer Prize.”

As time went on, Roger got famous. He once called to tell me that he’d been recognized from TV by a woman at the airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but that she’d called out “Which one are you?” His great friend Bill Nack tells a story about walking into a busy, crowded, loud restaurant and the whole place suddenly going silent when Roger was
spotted.

“Pay no attention,” he said. “It’s just TV.”

Nothing changed Roger — until Chaz. She was his soulmate. She brought him joy, a family and made his life “whole.” When Roger got sick, it was Chaz who brought him through, and helped him focus on new books, new TV shows, Twitter, his website, his blog — things that did not require that he speak, only that he think, and write. He called Chaz his “guardian angel.”

Roger had always been a great guy; Chaz enabled him to become a great man.

I was at the hospital with Roger and Chaz the Monday before Roger died. Josh Golden came in to show Roger the final version of his new website, RogerEbert.com.

Roger looked it over, then wrote on the small pad he used to communicate. “Looks great. Even better than I hoped.” Then, gracious and eloquent to the end, he added: “Thank you. You have made me immortal.”

I certainly hope so.

View more videos at: http://nbcchicago.com.

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