Memories of an audience with Roger Ebert

I met Roger Ebert only once, in 1995, a little more than a year after I'd begun writing about television for the Daily News.

I've been quoting him ever since.

Because though what I wrote after the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic  and his Chicago Tribune counterpart Gene Siskel passed through Philadelphia on a promotional tour for "Siskel & Ebert" didn't include it, what I remember most from that luncheon audience (which included other reporters) was Ebert insisting that no critic would spend two hours in the dark hoping for a movie to be bad.

That's true of TV, too. We live in a world where it's now easy to start to form an opinion months -- or even years -- before something arrives for review. But thanks to Ebert, I try to keep an open mind. And to remain hopeful.

Not that anyone could  be as hopeful as Ebert, who outlived his younger (and, at the time, seemingly fitter) co-host by 14 years, continuing to write at an almost unbelievable pace and with undiminished eloquence long after cancer had cost him his voice (and even publishing a cookbook after he could no longer eat).

All those years ago, I couldn't have anticipated all the changes our business would undergo, much less that Ebert, who took to blogging and social meda like the proverbial duck to water, would embrace those changes more willingly -- and successfully -- than many decades younger.

I remain a little in awe. And despite today's sadness, hopeful.

Here's my piece from June 30, 1995, which was headlined "Opposable Thumbs":

   Forget the bald jokes. Forget the fat jokes. If you want to tell Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert apart, the thumbs have it.

  Ebert's right thumb (yes, it's been measured) is a "fraction of an inch" larger than Siskel's, says Ebert. More importantly (at least to Ebert), it curves. Siskel's is straight. Curved thumbs, Ebert's been told, signify creativity.

  The man with the straight thumb looks unworried.

 "Siskel & Ebert," the syndicated show that weekly brings together two men who have little more in common than an abiding love of film (and opposable thumbs), begins its 20th season Sept. 19. Yesterday, promotion chores for the show brought the two longtime Chicago newspaper critics to lunch at KYW (Channel 3), which airs the program at noon Sundays.

  Here's what we learned from the duo (when they weren't interrupting each other):

  --  Ebert, 53, takes his Powerbook on vacations and writes reviews, but left it home during his July 1992 honeymoon.

  -- Siskel, 49, who Wednesday sold the John Travolta suit from "Saturday Night Fever" at auction for $145,500 "to a guy in London," has never worn the suit, which has hung in a closet - when not on loan to museums - since 1979, when he bought it for $2,000. It's a 40 long, he's a 42 long, but that's not what stopped him. Trying on the suit "would have diminished it for me."

 --  If U.S. Sen. Robert Dole was a student in Ebert's film-criticism class, he'd flunk. "I ask my students to do two things - see the picture and think about it. " Dole is blaming Hollywood when he should be blaming the audience, Ebert said. "You vote with seven dollars in your pocket every time you see a movie."

 -- Neither knows how much the other is paid by his respective newspaper, but Ebert thinks Siskel makes $129,500 at the Chicago Tribune, while Siskel thinks Ebert makes $129,400. Their TV contracts (no details) are said to be identical.

 -- Siskel would stop making fat jokes about Ebert if he thought they ''caused him pain. " Ebert has stopped (he says) making bald jokes about Siskel, but hopes (he says) that Siskel won't stop making fat jokes about him, because it makes fans like him more. (Got that? ) Still, the Pritikin backslider is starting another diet (tomorrow) with a stay at a Durham, N.C., facility called Structure House.