Roger Ebert, looking at the light

Updated 3:59 PM EST, Fri January 2, 2015

Story highlights

Movie critic Roger Ebert appealed to film aficionados and the popcorn-loving masses

In 1975, Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize

Ebert's legacy is explored in CNN Films' "Life Itself"

Explore more about the fascinating world of the late film critic Roger Ebert in the CNN Film “Life Itself.”

(CNN) —  

There was a time when Roger Ebert was, simply, “the fat one.”

When TV viewers first saw Ebert – whether it was on “Sneak Previews,” his and Gene Siskel’s national PBS movie review show, or “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” the widely syndicated version – they latched on to the look: a slightly rumpled, sweater-vested guy with glasses, paired off with the much taller, balding Siskel (who, of course, was “the bald one”).

Never mind the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, which Ebert was the first film critic to win. Never mind the probing interviews with figures such as Kirk Douglas and Burt Reynolds. Never mind the expertise he brought to his job or the no-nonsense attitude he had in offering his critiques.

Most people didn’t see that – until they settled in and watched the two Chicago critics go after each other, debating the finer points of “Blue Velvet” or “Die Hard.” It was only then that, perhaps, viewers realized this wasn’t just a show about movies.

Movie quiz: How ‘Ebert’ are you?

It was also a show about movie reviewing, movie embracing, movieGOING. A shared awe and love of pictures projected in the dark.

And that was Ebert’s genius. (Siskel, who died in 1999, should get some credit, too. The pair’s chemistry was integral to the show’s spirit.)

They reveled in film in ways that appealed to the aficionados – folks who knew who Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael were – and to the masses, popcorn-loving audiences who didn’t care so much about art as wanting to be entertained for two hours.

But well before “Sneak Previews” and well after Siskel’s death, Ebert reveled in film and shared his enthusiasm with others. In 1967, when he was hired as the Chicago Sun-Times’ movie critic, he hadn’t yet turned 25 but sounded like a film veteran.

A generation later, when the Internet came calling, he was all over it, developing his own website, tweeting incessantly, sounding off in one format or another. He made his site a home for young movie enthusiasts and ran reviews from “far-flung correspondents.”

He invited comments and, perhaps surprisingly, rarely had to deal with trolls. By loving conversation, he made sure the dialogue was always respectful. Trolls and fanboys went elsewhere to vent.

It’s not that he wasn’t opinionated. His arguments with Siskel – and later with Richard Roeper – testify to that. One of his books was titled “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.” Another was “Your Movie Sucks.”

But even the emotion was less about anger than disappointment, a sense of “how dare you.” He knew how hard it was to make a movie; after all, he’d written the script for a couple, including “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” and went out of his way to praise small performances and little-known filmmakers. A film that didn’t try was more than a waste of time. It was an offense.

“(I) hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it,” he wrote about “North.”

“I’ve seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were,” he wrote about a film called “Mad Dog Time.”

Not even cancer, which forced the removal of his lower jaw and eventually took his life, could tamp down his energy.

As he watches a movie, “Ebert scribbles constantly, his pen digging into page after page, and then he tears the pages out of his notebook and drops them to the floor around him. Maybe 20 or 30 times, the sound of paper being torn from a spiral rises from the aisle seat in the last row,” Chris Jones wrote in a 2010 Esquire profile. “The lights come back on. Ebert stays in his chair, savoring, surrounded by his notes. It looks as though he’s sitting on top of a cloud of paper.”

Watching movies has been compared to waking dreams: the darkness, the colors, the sense of being immersed in another world. More than once, Ebert wrote about the experience of seeing films as a reverie and escape. Few were better at conveying that sense to those outside the theater.

And that cloud? One can see him there, a man among the mist, lost in the light.