Movie critic Roger Ebert’s death triggers memories of a letter

The number one film critic sent the writer a letter he prizes.	Photo: Roger Ebert at Sundance Film Festival, 2006 Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, April 12, 2013 — Roger Ebert sent me a letter. A real letter, mind you. I’m not talking about a tweet or blog or any technological transmission from this most prolific writer. I’m not even referring to a direct email.

What I am talking about is an old-fashioned letter. You remember letters. They’re currently disparaged in this day when speed is the paramount criterion, with the term “snail-mail.”

But once upon a time, they were the most personal means of communication: a typed letter inside a typed envelope stamped and mailed through the United States postal service. There was even a subcategory called “love letters.” I am not aware of any popular category today called “love emails” or “love tweets.”

The year was 1986. At the time, the big typewriter was the IBM Selectric with its special type element frequently called a “typeball” or, humorously, the “golf ball.” This ball rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking the ribbon. 

Back then, “At the Movies” was a new and popular show on television. It starred two Chicago movie critics: Gene Siskel of the The Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times. The two men sat in the balcony of a theater, showed clips of current or up-coming motion pictures and gave their comments and opinions on each film. 

Their exchanges were always interesting in that they often held opposing views on the film in question. A recent fact-check revealed that, in actuality, they agreed more than they disagreed. But it was the “disagreed” which drew attention and kept many viewers coming back. Their badinage should have been called “goodinage.”

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Neither man was gifted with the ability to hold back what they thought or felt. The show always ended well, however, with a review of a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” vote for each film. Then the two critics promised to save you a seat on the aisle, adding that they would “see you at the movies.”

Gene Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999. And now, just this past week, Roger Ebert died after a long, never-give-up battle with disfiguring cancer, which removed his speech but not his spirit nor his ability to communicate via his mastering of the incredible technological advances and advantages of our era.

Do I still have that letter? Yes, I do. Wherever I’ve moved since receiving it, that letter has moved, framed, with me. I’ve kept it not only because of the fame of this foremost movie critic (I have other letters from famous people in a file drawer somewhere), but also because the letter so clearly manifests the Ebert humor.

The letter never fails to give me a chuckle whenever I pause to read it. First, let me give you what today’s film critics and reviewers like to call “the back story.”

What precipitated Roger Ebert’s letter to me was a letter I had sent him. I didn’t expect a reply, although I assuredly thought it would be nice if I received one.

As a matter of fact, I had written and sent the same letter to both Mr. Ebert and his counterpart, Gene Siskel at their respective addresses. While I never heard from Siskel, within a week, I received a reply from Ebert. And it was a delight.

Now for that backstory. The Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, had run a story about the popular Siskel and Ebert TV show. It was, to say the least, an uncomplimentary piece. The critic was critical of the critics.

I thought that in poor taste and typed and mailed a letter to Mr. Shales telling him so. At the time, the thought was “you don’t knock the competition.” (That has since changed.)

A few days later, I received a reply from Mr. Shales. The envelope contained my letter to him, and diagonally across it, he had hand-written: “Your opinion is of no interest to me.”

I then sent a letter to Siskel and Ebert expressing my appreciation of their show and enclosing copies of my letter to Shales with his scribbled reply across it.

Within a week I received the letter from Mr. Ebert, thanking me for “defending” the team. Then he added, “One question: if your opinion is of no interest to him, what does that make his opinion of your opinion?”

Roger Ebert will be missed. He was known as a great and courageous guy. And as they say in the Army, “I Roger that.”

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.  


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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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