It was thanks to the Internet-based film critic James Berardinelli -- whom Ebert had been corresponding with for a while -- that I got that chance for a dinner with Roger Ebert at Sundance '99. Ebert had been an early adapter to the significance of the online world, and had made it a point in his annual Movie Yearbook beginning in the late 1990s to single out the Internet-based film critics he considered worthwhile. Mr. Berardinelli was one of those -- and, in Mr. Ebert's opinion circa 1998, so was I.
I was fairly dumbfounded when an online acquaintance made me aware that I'd made the cut in Ebert's Yearbook. After all, I'd been watching since his PBS Sneak Previews show with Gene Siskel in the early 1980s; he was a Pulitzer Prize-winner at a craft I'd barely begun to feel competent at; he was The Man. A thumbs-up from Roger Ebert was the most astonishing indication I'd yet received that maybe there was a shot for me at this crazy film-criticism thing. And I don't think it hurt my bona fides when I walked into the City Weekly offices in spring 1999 and showed Publisher John Saltas a copy of those words of praise from Roger Ebert.
So in January of 1999, I was able to thank Roger Ebert in person for that kindness. I wish I could remember more of that dinner conversation; I think I was too awestruck for it to feel casual. I do remember his casual jests about Gene Siskel, who would pass away himself only a couple of months later. And I remember that he picked up the check.
In subsequent years, I'd see him periodically, and while there's no way of knowing whether he'd have remembered my name without those ever-present press badges, he always greeted me and was willing to chat. That seems to be the memory of so many people today: That someone who had reached the top of his profession, instead of becoming a standoffish jerk, was instead kind and inviting.
Rest in peace in the greatest balcony seat, Mr. Ebert. And thanks again.