Editor’s note: A version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.
The national outpouring of grief and praise in reaction to the death of Roger Ebert signaled the film critic’s ultimate victory in his long-running competition with cross-town Chicago rival (and on-air TV partner) Gene Siskel. When Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999 his passing provoked few if any front page tributes, no effusive presidential proclamation, and scant sentiments like the LA Times headline anointing Ebert as “First Citizen Critic and Father to Us All.”
In a sense, this contrast seems surprising. Siskel succumbed at age 53, when the dueling duo stood at the pinnacle of media prominence and their syndicated show Siskel & Ebert & the Movies still aired on stations around the country. On the other hand, Ebert faced a sharply declining TV presence during the decade he gallantly battled cancer – especially after losing the ability to speak and relying on an eerily synthesized version of his own voice.
In part, this display of courage, grace and a peerless work ethic helps explain the emotional response to Ebert’s loss; the final phase of his career offered as much inspiration as any movie melodrama he ever reviewed. But his death also resonated widely because of his unmistakable status as the last of a breed of powerful celebrity film critics.