The troubling news this week that Roger Ebert’s cancer had recurred and he was taking a “leave of presence” from his duties was followed with brutal immediacy by his death. I heard from a friend I ran into Thursday evening on North Avenue; we were standing, we realized at some point, outside the corner joint that had once been O’Rourke’s—Ebert’s nightly haunt back in the 70s when he was young, already a star of stars in Chicago journalism, and an alcoholic. He’s since written elegantly of that era.
Word of his illness did not surprise his readers. Most of a newspaper’s most popular recurring features—its top columnists and most beloved comic strips—can vanish for days at a time before readers even notice. But readers turned to Ebert as they turned to no one else, and for the past few weeks other people were writing the film reviews in the Friday Sun-Times. It didn’t matter who they were—none was the critic we opened those pages to find. Something was wrong.