Happy Birthday, Roger Ebert: How the Late Film Critic Changed My Life at a Steak ‘n Shake

A TIME editor recalls a life-transforming meeting with his personal hero

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Roger Ebert in 1982

Roger Ebert would have turned 71 today. He started in journalism at the age of 15, when he tried his hand at sports reporting, and won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism when he was just 32. At the age of 61, he changed my life.

In one of the many surreal coincidences that defined my relationship with Roger, my idol passed away in April on the one and only day of the last 15 years that I have been without Wi-Fi. I was moving neighborhoods in New York City with my wife – ironically, a city and a woman I never would have connected with if not for Roger – and I learned about his passing via text message. Rushing to prep the apartment for the cable guy, I tried to block out the swell of emotion until later that evening, when I read through scores of appreciations on the Internet. The man, and his writing, changed so many lives around the world. I fully appreciate that I am just another in the long line of worshipers who point to this gentle, passionate, prolific scribe as our inspiration. But I can’t let 2013 slip by without adding my voice to the chorus

(READ: Roger Ebert: Farewell to a Film Legend and Friend)

For the longest time, I wondered if Roger remembered who I was. The first note I ever sent him concerned 2001: A Space Odyssey – the first of his reviews that changed the way I thought about a movie. My passion for film began with  Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus, which I discovered during the summer after 8th grade, as I wandered the public library in Hartland, Wisconsin. Next to all those boring dramas on the video shelf was a VHS box with an astronaut, and while the film lacked the lasers I had originally hoped for, I wound up watching the odyssey over and over on my 9-inch bedroom TV. I must have restarted the thing at least 60 times back then, and took to the dial-up to scour the internet for reviews to help me understand the mystery of the monolith….and why the heck there was a Louis XVI-style bedroom out there at the edge of space. I found Ebert’s original review, his “Great Movies” essay,  in which he relates how the top critics of the day stormed out of its premiere screening during Intermission, while he went on to express his fascination. Roger Ebert wrote about few films with the reverence and curiosity he saved for 2001, and it was a catalog of passion so fervent that it inspired me to want to be a critic, championing the works that lifted me up.

It were his reviews that inspired me to take an “Introduction to Film Criticism” course during my freshman year in Minneapolis. Appropriately enough, my semester project was devoted to deconstructing the production design of 2001. It was a paper so thorough and exhaustive that it convinced my instructor, then the arts editor of the college paper, to assign me my first review for print. On a freezing night in late February, I took the city bus out into the suburbs, and jumped the snowdrifts, to review Jay Russell’s My Dog Skip. It’s a sweet, sappy, unapologetically nostalgic film, one that any self-respecting, too-cool-for-school college freshman would have torn into. But from the outset, I responded strongly to the sweetness at its core; I never really bought into the “Minnesota Nice” categorization, but here was a coming-of-age exploration that was tender and true. When I sat down to write the review, I thought: What Would Ebert Do? My answer: He’d be true to the experience.  I gave it a good review, and a few days later was overjoyed when Ebert himself gave it three stars (yes, I know that Roger hated star ratings).

(READ: Why Roger Ebert’s Thumb Mattered)

Four years later, Ebert chose the film for his “Overlooked Film Festival,” and I was there, in Champaign, Illinois’ stunning Virginia Theatre, to see it again. In the intervening years, I had started writing obsessively for the school paper, had launched a weeky movie-show on the campus radio station. I had started a very tech-sounding review website with my friend Dave – we called it Zertinet – which got us placement on Rotten Tomatoes and comped tickets to the annual Ebertfest (which I later had the thrill of writing about for TIME).

Late one night at the 2004 celebration, Dave and I rushed downstairs at the end of the day’s screenings in hopes of catching Roger. This was our third festival, but I had always been intimidated by the prospect of talking to Roger directly. Down from the balcony, a member of the theater staff told us that the founder had already departed with his entourage. Seeing the dejected look on my face, he gave me a tip: “They always go to the Steak ‘n Shake for the after-party.” Truth be told, I had no idea what a Steak ‘n Shake was (Ebert would later inform the world about the true meaning of the fast food shop, as well as “In Sight It Must Be Right”), and given that this was still years before the iPhone, I had no smartphone to guide me to one. So instead, we drove around Champaign-Urbana, stopping at gas stations and asking if there was a Steak & Shake nearby. We hit the jackpot on the first try, and could see Roger Ebert from the parking lot, sitting with a crew of smiling, laughing Hollywood heavyweights at the corner table.

“What are you going to say to him?” Dave asked, as we slid into our booth. I had no idea; had not even really begun to formulate a thought. I knew I had Ebert’s The Great Movies book in the car, so I ran out and grabbed it, thinking that perhaps I’d show him I was a true fan. Then I started to process all that had changed in my life in the past year, due to him, and tried to form some coherent way of lining it all up in a sentence or two.

For you see, I had changed just about everything in my life between the 2003 and 2004 Ebertfests. The year before the Steak ‘n Shake, I was a college senior majoring in business who had just accepted a job as a business analyst at Target. It was the wrong profession, and somewhere deep down I knew it, because I had also pursued a summer internship at the USA Today offices in Washington, D.C. When I told this to my marketing professor prior to the 2003 Ebertfest, he laughed and asked why I wasn’t going to journalism school, since clearly that’s where my passion was. I shrugged it off, and headed down for a weekend of movies with Roger. But later that year, as I found myself sitting in analyst training in the Target headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, clarity came in the form of a Roger Ebert review. Bored with training class on a Friday morning, I logged onto the web – no doubt to the notice of my trainer – to check out Roger’s reviews of the newest releases. One of the weekend’s new titles was Red Betsy, a small Midwestern production that had been filmed in Wisconsin. I interviewed the director, and reviewed the film, for the small Wisconsin daily that I was freelancing for, and at the bottom of Ebert’s review, he included a link to my feature on the filmmaker. (Sadly the link was lost in conversion when Ebert revamped the site a couple years ago)

(READ: Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert!)

It was surely an afterthought for him – just a related link to drop at the bottom. But seeing my name on his site hit me like a depth a charge. I quit my job a month later (I still have the resignation letter framed in my Time-Life Building office), dove into campus arts reporting, later becoming the arts editor of the Minnesota Daily, and started strategizing my journalism school application.

ebert - resignation letter

The resignation letter, framed and still holding a special place in my office

So here I was, late April of 2004, struggling with how to make it clear to Roger Ebert that one of his reviews led me to blow up my life, without making it sound too heavy. Or freaking him out. Dave and I watched him eat; at one point he got up to go to the bathroom, and I thought that would be a perfect place, to say hello while washing our hands. But once inside the bathroom, I royally chickened out.

I was going to abandon the plan altogether until Dave finally prompted me to just go over. I tapped him on the shoulder, told him how much I was enjoying the festival and that I had emailed him on some occasions. I told him he inspired me to become a film writer, that I had seen him earlier that month at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, and that I had taken my dad to see his introduction to A Hard Day’s Night in the Orpheum Theatre (the same theatre where, a year later, I would learn via cellphone that I had been accepted to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where, another five years later, I would marry my wife). I asked if he could sign my book. He thrust out his hand and shook mine softly while smiling. I let him get back to talking to Werner Herzog.

In the years that followed, I continued to send Roger things: Links to reviews, the news of my journalism school experience, where I studied under Judith Crist, who he had cited as an influence. My first real journalism gig was a stint at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, where I often found myself working at the desk of Matt Zoller Seitz, now the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. I was at that very desk when news of Ebert’s ruptured carotid artery hit the wires, and I was ordered to start working on his obituary.

Thankfully, I never really had to finish that obit. In the years that followed that health crisis, I contributed to TIME’s list of the year’s best blogs, and singled out Roger’s health writing as a must-read. I became friends with Richard Corliss, one of his close friends, and relished hearing about their Cannes adventures.

The last time I saw Roger was late one night at the end of an Ebertfest. It must have been 2009 or 2010, after he lost the ability to speak and had to sit in a special chair, installed in the Viriginia. His wife Chaz was helping Roger up after a long day of screenings, and I just wanted to say hello, that I was enjoying the festival so much and was glad Roger was there. I said my name was Steven Snyder, that we had crossed paths in the past, and that I wasn’t sure if he remembered, but I was thrilled, as always, to be at Ebertfest. His eyes lit up, and he held up one finger high — an Aha! I remember! gesture. And then he gave me a thumbs up. I walked with them out into the lobby, and helped hold the door of the car.

(READ: Roger Ebert: The Final Thumb?)

One of the most touching moments of my life came this past August. Seven years after I studied with her, Judith Crist passed away, and I locked myself in my office and wrote a quick appreciation from a student’s point of view. It was impossible for me to write about Crist without first writing about Ebert – how he inspired me to write criticism and apply for journalism school, and how that tied into studying with one of his idols. I was frank about the fact that Ebert meant everything to me, and Crist meant a whole lot to him. The next day, Roger wrote an item on Crist, and quoted my piece extensively.

It was a one-two punch that left me speechless: Not only was it clear that he was still reading my work, but there was no way for him to read that particular essay without realizing all he meant to me. If his first link to me back in 2003 inspired a quest, his 2012 citation left me feeling as if I had finally arrived at the destination.

But back to that Steak ‘n Shake. Giddy and reeling, I couldn’t make myself open the book to read Roger’s signature until we were back to the hotel – or, as we dubbed it: Zertinet’s Midwest Bureau. Inside, he had written simply “I’ll Be Reading” above his name. That’s the kind of celebrity he was – always reading, linking, encouraging and inspiring. He wanted people to love movies, to channel their passions, to access empathy and joy, and his one act of kindness launched me to write hundreds (thousands?) of articles, always with him lingering somewhere in the back of my mind.

In the weeks since he died, it’s become clear that I am the rule, not the exception. He launched a generation of readers, viewers and dreamers. And I still miss him dearly – every time I open Twitter, expecting to see his torrent of thoughts, and every Friday, when I want to know what he thought about This Is the End or After Earth. I desperately want to know his take on Upstream Color.

He kept reading, as he promised he would, and I take solace in the fact tha last autumn, before he began his last fight with cancer, he knew what he meant to me. I should have said more at Steak ‘n Shake, should have returned to Ebertfest last year, to see his favorite movies with him one last time. I should have hopped a plane to Chicago for the memorial.

But anyone who loves Roger Ebert should be comforted by the fact that I just returned from a trip to Los Angeles, where I saw a couple movies at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the “Roger Ebert Theater” at L.A. Live. Small tributes were paid to his memory; to his endless championing of independent and up-and-coming artists. You can add aspiring writers to that list too. The work, the ideas and the passion of Roger Ebert will endure. Tonight, I’m going to the Steak ‘n Shake in Times Square.