This column originally ran in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 21, 2011.
Some years ago when I was new to Chicago, I spotted Roger Ebert in the frozen-foods aisle of a grocery store. He was famous by then, and I did what any normal person does at the sight of a celebrity, meaning I gawked while trying to pretend I hadn't noticed him at all.
I couldn't have said why he fascinated me, exactly, except that he was a TV star. He was also the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but it was his television duels with the Tribune's Gene Siskel that made his name. Their movie-review show was the reason that when I came to work for the Tribune, friends in other places asked, “So which paper do you work for? The one with the thin guy or the fat guy?”
Whatever the reason for my fascination that night in the market, I casually rolled my cart up the aisle where Ebert studied the frozen pizzas. I turned only my eyes, not my head, to study him and it hit me: He looks tired.
The famous guy looked tired.
More than once I've thought back on that moment as the first time I consciously registered the illusion that is fame. The famous guy was alone and apparently hungry, and he seemed excruciatingly ordinary.
All these years later, especially after reading his new memoir, “Life Itself,” I've realized that it's precisely the quality of ordinariness that has helped make Roger Ebert remarkable.
Through all the astonishing events of his life — a swift rise as a young newspaper critic; television fame and hobnobbing with movie stars; drinking with the Great Drinkers until he renounced alcohol; the disfiguring cancer that has left him unable to eat, drink or speak — he seems to have retained the core of the regular boy who grew up in Urbana, sucking on Necco wafers, loving his dog, memorizing the Baltimore Catechism, curious about everything.
Every story of a life is also a story of a place, and Ebert's autobiography also tells the story of Illinois in his time, from the small town to the big city. His writing is direct and vivid, pleasantly reminiscent of both a movie voice-over and a slightly rambling conversation. His tone is reflective and amused.
He jokes that he's not fat anymore, but looks like the Phantom of the Opera. An editor once said to me that to read someone's writing is to watch the person's mind at work. That's how it feels to read “Life Itself.” Ebert can no longer speak, and yet his mind, traveling on his written words, shines through the broken body as he thinks about sex, love, movies, God.
On Thursday night, the Chicago Public Library and its foundation gave Ebert its Carl Sandburg award. The award honors him as a writer, but he has become more than that.
There may not be another living Chicagoan who represents Chicago so well to itself and the world right now. The old icons — Mike Royko, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, all guys Ebert once hung with and admired — are gone.
And Ebert is a different kind of symbol. Our local self-caricature, which is long on macho and crusty, doesn't make much room for tenderness and introspection, or for evolution.
In what he himself speculates is his final phase, that's what Ebert is doing: evolving, exploring inside himself as well as outside, living a remarkable life that illuminates ordinary life for the rest of us.
“I may seem tragic to you,” he writes in his memoir, “but I seem fortunate to myself.”
Chicago is fortunate he's here.Copyright © 2015, CT Now