Roger Ebert died on Thursday at the age of 70. Everyone knew him as the film critic with a famous thumb. I knew him through his writing — that lovely, open-hearted writing that couldn’t help but inspire anyone who used art as a way to try to understand life.
Ebert is the type of public figure who will leave many lasting legacies, as he meant something different to everyone. Among his most important accomplishments? He proved that a cancer diagnosis shouldn’t prevent someone from living a happy, productive life.
Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. That cancer claimed his jaw in 2006, leaving him unable to speak or enjoy food and drink, which led to this touching essay in 2010. He turned to Twitter, gaining a large, loyal following as he used social media to connect with people in a way that few others have been able to replicate.
He continued to write. When he wasn’t writing, he was brainstorming things he could write about. He kept reviewing films, exposing more and more of himself — his thoughts, fears, passions — in his critiques. He somehow became more productive after his diagnosis.
This was a man who took nothing for granted. He knew he had a gift, and he knew how to share it. Cancer was not the end of the line for Roger Ebert. In many ways, his cancer diagnosis helped amplify his best qualities — his curiosity, work ethic, and compassion.
Many wonderful writers cite Ebert as a primary inspiration. Here is Will Leitch’s story. Here is Chris Jones’s landmark Esquire piece, “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man.” There are dozens more, as Ebert’s influence runs wide and deep throughout our culture.
In the 11 years Ebert lived with cancer, he produced more A-level content than most writers do in a lifetime. We’ll remember him not only as America’s most important film critic, but as a man who never let cancer stand in his way.