Stephen Hunter Fondly Remembers Roger Ebert

Pulitzer-Prize Winner guest hosted on Ebert's show before loss of iconic 'Thumbs'

In 2007, Stephen Hunter got the call that so many film critics before him hoped to receive.

The then-Washington Post chief film critic filled in for Roger Ebert on “At the Movies” with Richard Roeper.

There had been rotating guests joining the famous balcony week after week as Ebert battled cancer. The Chicago-based scribe eventually lost his ability to speak in 2006.

In Ebert’s absence, some inspired choices were joining Roeper. You were just as likely to see critics like Michael Phillips as you were to watch “Clerks” director Kevin Smith or “Archer” actress Aisha Tyler.

John Mellencamp even joined for a bizarre and bizarrely entertaining episode of Ebert’s show.

John Mellencamp on Ebert and Roeper

Before Ebert left, “At the Movies” had brought on critics like Elvis Mitchell and others following Gene Siskel’s passing in 1999. Hunter was a movie critic then, but he’d have to wait until the same year the first film adaptation of his novels, 2007’s underrated “Shooter,” was hitting the big screen to grace the movie criticism majors, so to speak.

“They got around to me real late,” Hunter joked in an interview with Hollywood in Toto promoting his latest book, “Front Sight.”

Hunter’s episode was actually the last to use the thumbs up/thumbs down rating system, made famous by Siskel and Ebert decades earlier. Ebert owned the copyright and parted ways with the show in 2007.

The rating system would eventually be revived for a new version of the show hosted by Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, but Hunter and Roeper were the last to use the potentially deadly thumbs in the version of the show so many remember.

“I always had a great admiration for, him and he towered in my imagination,” Hunter recalled of Ebert.
After co-hosting with Roeper, Ebert and his wife Chaz Ebert, who now runs his website, took Hunter and his wife to a restaurant they recommended for dinner.

“He was very good to me. He was one of the few film critics who congratulated me when I won the Pulitzer,” Hunter said.

Siskel and Ebert’s legacy has found some renewed interest thanks to Matt Singer’s new book, “Opposable Thumbs.”

Ebert in many ways stands as the beginning and end of a particular era of film criticism. He was such a significant figure through his writing, analysis and energetic love of movies that the industry almost called for a seismic shift after he passed away in 2013.

Gone are the days when you’d sit in front of the television to see if a particular movie was worth watching and maybe to see sparks fly between Siskel and Ebert and, later, Ebert and Roeper.

“I thought highly of him, and he had been my film critic when I was in college. You probably know this, but he was the first of what I would call the new generation of film critics,” Hunter said of his late colleague. “That is younger people who knew and cared and loved and spoke the language of movies and knew and cared and loved and spoke about directors and cinematography and all of the elements that went into a movie whereas the previous generation, they were basically failed sports writers or alcoholic feature writers.”

Hunter got an offer to test for a similar show after his appearance, but he turned it down. The guest spot wasn’t long before Hunter retired from the Post in 2008 and dedicated himself full-time to writing novels.

His latest, “Front Sight,” features three interconnected stories over multiple generations. Hunter fans will find plenty of nods to film noir and the final story, featuring Vietnam veteran and frequent Hunter hero Bob Lee Swagger, is straight giallo with an entertaining tip of the hat to the arguable master of the genre, Dario Argento.

Hunter’s love of movies is dripping off the page in all three of his stories. The man loves movies and he knows how to tell a good yarn.

Next up for the yarn slinger? A western, naturally.

Even without putting stories to paper, Hunter would still be the snappy film critic who dared plenty of times to go against the grain. And he finally got to take that balcony seat, an honor that unfortunately has become a part of history.

“It was a little recognition that I wanted and finally got,” Hunter said.

“Front Sight” is available now.

Zachary Leeman is a reporter for The Messenger and has been published on websites such as Breitbart, LifeZette, and Mediaite. His novel “Nigh” will be released later this year from publisher Gilded Masque.

One Comment

  1. Reminds me of a joke a comedian told when Ebert was doing his show with Gene Siskel. The joke was “Siskel and Ebert are considering changing the name of their show to “The Fat Guy and The Other One.”

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