He was a very good writer, and knew a damned lot about film (if you check out some of his educational stuff - intended more for film geeks than the general public - you'll see how much he holds back in his more mainstream writing). But what he was truly great at was being Roger Ebert. He was a completely unaffected man, utterly accessible, always curious and friendly. He never stopped being a film fan. Never having placed himself above it all, he helped inspire my realization that arrogance is strictly elective.
There was never the least cynicism, either, even after working nearly 50 years in a trade rife with both arrogance and cynicism. He chose not to become that sort of person, though no one would have begrudged his right to do so. It's rare and inspiring to see people act far better, and try far harder, than they could easily get away with.
I'd been in touch with him sporadically over the years. Ebert was one of the early adopters of CompuServe (a precursor to the Web) at a time when I was helping run a number of forums there and perpetrating various proto-cyber pranks. Years later, I tipped him to some little-known but masterful films, begging him to Schindler-List them from undeserved obscurity. He fell in love with one of them, choosing it to headline his "Overlooked Film Festival". Alas, it didn't help, as the film remains almost completely unknown. There's only so much even a Roger Ebert can do.
He asked how I'd managed to come across such cinematic diamonds in the rough, and I explained the chowhounding credo, and its applicability to realms well beyond food. He found it all fascinating, but complained that he was forced to spend much of his time screening and reviewing drek. He couldn't filmhound nearly as much as he'd have liked.
Just two days ago, Ebert posted to his blog that he was going to slow down a bit:
I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.I was so delighted to read this. After a half-century, he was finally free!
But today I feel absolutely whiplashed by the news that someone who just this week was writing about his future with such liveliness had suddenly evaporated from our midst. Only in an unjust universe does a man like Roger Ebert enjoy a mere 48 hours of freedom.