And then, Wednesday, after he had publicly announced that he would be cutting back on his movie reviews as he battled the cancer that would not let up, I wrote him again to say some personal things. We could no longer have regular conversations, of course, because the cancer surgeries had cost him his speaking voice, but the e-mails oddly became more intimate than all the words we said out loud over all the decades.
He didn't answer Wednesday's note, which was highly unusual.
I wish you could have known him as a young man -- his laughter, his stories, his sheer joy of being out around other newspaper people. You know how well he wrote -- I wish you could have seen how fast he wrote. It was the sound of a machine gun, on those old manual typewriters. No one writes that fast -- and then, to have the result be so beautiful?
Roger was still drinking in those days, and there would be nights on North Avenue in Chicago when the bars would close at 4 a.m., and a group of us would come walking out, and rumbling down the street would be a Chicago Sun-Times delivery truck. We all knew the drivers by name, and they knew us, and they'd stop and invite us to hop in-- they'd give us a ride home while dropping bundles of papers off before dawn.
So there we'd be, in those boxy red delivery trucks, and in the back would be the new editions, right off the press, sometimes still warm and damp. There were nights when Roger would pull the top copy off a bundle, and, right there in the truck, he would read the words of the review he had finished writing just hours before ... oh, he seemed so happy on those nights.
For several Christmases, we've had a tradition. A couple of Decembers ago, on Christmas Day, I took a walk around the downtown area of Chicago, the streets and sidewalks slick with ice and snow. There is a statue, near the Chicago River, of Irv Kupcinet, the late longtime columnist for the Sun-Times. The statue was coated with snow. I snapped a photo of it and sent it to Roger.
I told him I was sending it in remembrance of all the Christmas Days when we would be working in the fourth floor newsroom of the old Sun-Times building at 401 N. Wabash Avenue, and Kup would come walking in, snow on his overcoat, on the beat as always, holiday or no. Roger wrote back with three words: "Dat's right, Jack!" I laughed out loud, and I knew that Roger, if he could, would be laughing, too. Kup used to do the WGN Radio broadcasts of Chicago Bears games with play-by-play man Jack Brickhouse. Whatever Brickhouse might say about a play -- a touchdown, a great tackle, an interception -- Kup could be counted on to reply with:
"Dat's right, Jack!"
And so it was on Christmas Days, right up to and including the last one. I'd once again send that picture of the Kup statue to Roger, and his "Dat's right, Jack!" would come back like clockwork.
It was Roger who called me one day in 1999, his voice shaking and mournful, to tell me the news that our mutual friend and Ebert's television partner, critic Gene Siskel, had just died. The courage Roger has shown these last years as he has fought his own illnesses -- you can read the details of what he went through in the formal obituaries. A man whose voice was so famous, who loved so much to tell stories: to have that stolen from him -- yet to persevere with such humor and intelligence and basic good-guyness...
I was in Chicago for a few days last week. I knew that these recent months had been very difficult for him. On Oak Street, I saw the big, bright vertical sign for the old Esquire Theater.
The theater is gone and there's a new and glitzy steakhouse in the building.
In 1971, in that newsroom at 401 N. Wabash, Roger walked over and handed me the dupes -- the carbons -- of a review he had just written. It was for a film that was opening that week: "The Last Picture Show."
The dupes were light green and flimsy, the letters from that Gatling-gun typewriter of his black and distinct. He told me he thought I'd love the movie.
So, on that day more than 40 years ago, I went to the Esquire and saw it. He was right. It was wonderful.
Last week, seeing the Esquire sign, I walked into the new steakhouse. I wanted to offer Roger a silent toast.
I rode an escalator upstairs. Right around where I think the projection booth must have been, there was a bar. I took a seat and ordered something.
There is some dialogue in "The Last Picture Show," very near the end. Sam the Lion, the rough-hewn soul of the town, has died, and the woman to whom he turned over the movie theater he owned is lamenting the fact that she is going to have to close it down.
She says to the two boys who have shown up on that final night:
"Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Kid baseball in the summer, television all the time. Sam had lived, I believe we could've kept it going. But I just didn't have the know-how."
And then had come the words:
"Won't be much to do in town, with the picture show closed."