By Jeff Greenfield
When you lose a friend after half a century, grief goes with the territory.
But when the friend is Roger Ebert, it is impossible not to remember the laughter and the joy of his too infrequent, but always memorable, companionship.
We met in the early 1960s; he was the editor of The Daily llini at the University of Illinois and I was editor of the Wisconsin Daily Cardinal. We’d come to New York for a national gathering of student editors, but what bonded us was a taste for humor.
We both worshipped at the altar of Bob and Ray, the era’s great radio comics; indeed, we’d both memorized long stretches of their classic routines—and neither of us were afflicted with excessive shyness.
One evening, as we waited outside Second City at Square East to watch the troupe of improvisational comics and actors, Roger and I passed the time by performing a highly enthusiastic (if highly unskilled) series of routines, much to the curiosity and mild approval of the folks on line.
In the decades that followed, Roger and I would sign off whatever form of communication—letters or email—with Bob and Ray’s signature sign-off line: “Remember to write if you get work and hang by your thumbs.”
A year later, at another gathering of college journalists, Roger and I ditched the earnest proceedings to catch the opening day of a new movie: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” For Roger, it was a perfect blend of slapstick hilarity and a savagely jaundiced view of Cold War lunacy. He had a particular fondness for the feckless president’s admonition: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room!”
Politics infused with a sense of buoyancy, even celebration, was part of Roger’s great appeal.
Whenever I would travel to Chicago, we’d meet at Riccardo’s, a long-celebrated saloon, where Roger would persuade the house accordion player—trust me, there was a house accordion player—to join him in a medley of left-wing songs. “We’ll turn Buckingham Palace into a public convenience hall/when the Red Revolution comes!” was a special favorite.
Roger seemed to live his life by Auntie Mame’'s maxim: “Life is a banquet, and most poor beggars are starving.” Even before his illness, it was not all sunshine—his brilliant memoir, “Life Itself,” reveals a struggle with alcohol—but I’m convinced it was his sheer appetite for life and its absurdities—along with the ceaseless devotion and strength of his wife Chaz—that kept him working so long and so well through the years of his brutal illnesses.
Not even his health battles could stay his sense of humor. I happened to be in Chicago when a setback had kept him in hospital and deprived him of speech. When I walked into his room, he scribbled a note to me that read: “Well, here's ANOTHER fine mess I've gotten myself into." It was a twist on a signature line from countless Laurel and Hardy movies.
For millions, Roger Ebert will be remembered as a writer and television personality who brought a sense of passion and excellence to his craft. For me, he is a man who fused joy and courage as few others ever have. My life was enriched by having such a friend; it is poorer for losing such a friend.