Hollywood came to Chicago on Thursday as actors, directors, film critics and studio presidents honored late movie reviewer Roger Ebert in his hometown.
All of those who shared memories at the Chicago Theatre cheered Ebert as a champion of movies and a critic who used his influence to help filmmakers find audiences. He died last week at age 70 after a years-long battle with cancer.
"He was always supportive of artists. He always gave you a fair shake," said Chicago native John Cusack, who appeared with his sister and fellow actor, Joan Cusack.
Ebert worked at the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 40 years. The day before his April 4 death, he wrote in a post on his blog that he was taking a break from his schedule of almost-daily movie reviewing because the cancer had recurred.
"He was simply one of the finest men I ever met," Chaz Ebert said of her late husband during Thursday night's memorial.
Roger Ebert won national fame when he teamed with fellow film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune in 1975 for a television show that had them each give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating to the latest releases.
John Cusack said he and his sister enjoyed watching Ebert and Siskel growing up. "Chicago's lost a great icon but he'll always be with us," he said of Ebert.
John remembered running into Ebert at the Carnegie Deli in New York while doing a press junket for his very first movie. Ebert, catching wind of Cusack’s nervousness about whether the pending review would pan or praise the film, leaned over and whispered “I liked your movie.”
Joan Cusack read a letter from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The Obamas remembered Ebert as a "cultural leader."
Earlier, Todd McCarthy, a film critic who has written for publications such as Variety, said a key to Ebert's success was that he was "a populist without prejudice."
"He was neither high-brow nor low-brow," McCarthy said. "In the world of film criticism for 46 years there was Roger Ebert and then there was the rest of us."
Ebert continued the movie review TV show with Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper after Siskel's death in 1999.
"I felt that as long as Roger was alive a little bit of Gene was, too," said Siskel's widow, Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, at the memorial. She said Ebert had an "unsurpassed body of work."
Independent filmmaker Ava Duvernay took the red eye from Los Angeles to share the four times she’d crossed paths with Ebert, who she credited with helping her first movie to succeed - a sentiment echoed by many others.
A choir opened the gathering by singing, "Roger Ebert, we will always love you."
The historic theater was a fitting place for the event. Ebert screened movies there for many years. And in 2005, the city unveiled a sidewalk medallion under the ornate marquee of the theater as a tribute to Ebert.
“He wasn’t one of the go along to get alongs," civil rights activist Dick Gregory said. "He broke all rules.”
Chaz who ended the night by invoking Ebert’s intelligence, heart, and great love.
“When he thought he was disfigured, when I looked at him I saw beauty,” she said. “And when he looked at me, I saw the love that each one of us deserves to have. And I hope that all of you out there finds a love like that.”
Next week, Ebert will be honored at Ebertfest, his annual film festival in Champaign.
He earned respect for championing small independent movies that he scouted out at film festivals while at the same time taking Hollywood's biggest names to task when they missed the mark.
Ebert was the first journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize for movie criticism and was the first critic to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Alison Cuddy contributed to this report. Photos by Andrew Gill.