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Local critics recall encounters with Ebert in tribute to late film critic

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Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press published a tribute to iconic Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert Thursday, shortly after the Sun-Times announced Ebert's death.

Ebert died after a battle with cancer Thursday. He was 70.

In his article "Rest in Peace, Mr. Ebert," Hewitt described the Pulitzer Prize-winning critics' display of kindness at the 1995 Oscars, when, new to the job, Hewitt was trying to figure out the then-new technology of filing a story remotely by laptop.

Hewitt said that he "lucked out," because in the backstage tent where the reporters were stationed, he sat across a big table from Ebert. He said Ebert "kindly helped" him figure out all the connections "and explained how the q/a's worked when winners zipped into our tent for a few minutes."

Hewitt said without Ebert's help, he would probably still be searching for an electrical outlet and would have certainly missed his opportunity to ask a questions of the Best Actress Oscar winner that year, Minnesota native Jessica Lange.

Hewitt also noted meeting Ebert a second time when the critic accompanied Werner Herzog at a tribute to the legendary filmmaker's work at the Walker Art Center in 1999.

"What came through more than anything was Ebert's passion for his work and for movies," Hewitt wrote.

My only encounter with Ebert came in Los Angeles in 1999, where I was filling in for interviews for my mentor, late WCCO Arts & Entertainment reporter and anchor Bill Carlson.

It was slightly surreal to be sitting around the interviewers lounge with Ebert, talking with him about the movie business. Even better, it was great to hear him specifically rave about the Minnesota-made crime thriller "A Simple Plan," which was released in theaters a few weeks before.

Ebert died two days after announcing on his Sun-Times blog a "leave of presence" after a recurrence of cancer. Ebert had been battling health problems over the past decade, including fights with cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

In 2006, his health battles cost the film critic part of his lower jaw, and took away his ability to speak or eat.

Ebert's first television partner, fellow film critic Gene Siskel, died after a battle with brain cancer in 1999 at the age of 53.

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