Roger Ebert praised by actors, filmmakers, family at Chicago memorial

Roger Ebert in 2003
Roger Ebert in 2003Today

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By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Film critic Roger Ebert was remembered Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre in a music- and memory-filled three hour event that, like his funeral on Monday, included both regular fans and famous film-world faces.

The Chicago Theatre hosted a three-hour memorial for film critic Roger Ebert Thursday night.Paul Beaty / AP / Today

Actor John Cusack, who's starred in such films as "Say Anything" and "Grosse Pointe Blank," said of the late critic, "He was always supportive of artists and he always gave you a fair shake."

Ebert died April 4 at age 70 after a long battle with cancer.

Related: At Ebert's funeral, fans and famous mingle

Cusack recalled making his first film, "The Sure Thing," at age 17, and finding himself sitting with director Rob Reiner in New York's Carnegie Deli right next to Ebert and his longtime television partner, Gene Siskel. The actor said he knew Ebert was going to review his film the next day, and he sat in agony until the critic, noticing his panic, looked over at him and whispered, "I liked your movie."

Cusack's sister, actress Joan Cusack, read a letter from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, sending their sympathy and praising Ebert for "bringing the world of cinema into our everyday lives."

Roger Ebert's widow Chaz Ebert, left, speaks with actors John Cusack center, and Joan Cusack, right, at The Chicago Theatre before the memorial for her late husband.Paul Beaty / AP / Today
Roger Ebert in 2003Today

Other speakers included "Fugitive" director Andy Davis, Sony Pictures Classics president Michael Barker, "El Norte" director Gregory Nava, former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner, film critic Richard Roeper and Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, widow of Gene Siskel.

Iglitzen Siskel, who lost her husband in 1999, recalled how the famed duo honestly didn't like each other at first, but grew to love each other. As long as Ebert was alive, she said, she felt that "a part of Gene was too."

Roeper, who co-hosted "At the Movies" with Ebert for eight years after Siskel's death, compared his late partner to a famous movie character who enlightened everyone's world. "He was our George Bailey," Roeper said. "It was truly a wonderful life."

Journalist Bill Kurtis, who provided a voice for Ebert on "Ebert Presents at the Movies" after cancer took the critic's voice away, praised Ebert's willingness to move with the times and adapt to new technology.

Related:Film critic Roger Ebert dies at age 70

"He jumped into the Internet like Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch," Kurtis said.

Ebert's widow, Chaz Ebert, spoke at the beginning and end of the event, and her children and grandchildren joined her to remember the man who treated them as his own. Granddaughter Raven Evans recalled how Ebert taught her to love the Beatles and Broadway musicals, and always sent her books, from Willa Cather's "My Antonia" to "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook."

"He was simply one of the finest men I ever met," said Chaz Ebert. "Inside and outside, he was beautiful. When he thought he was disfigured (after cancer surgery), when I looked at him, I saw beauty."

Related: Why Ebert mattered to movie lovers everywhere

A gospel choir also performed, and clips of Ebert's television appearances as well as personal family videos and snapshots were shown.

Ebert often attended movie screenings at the Chicago Theatre, and a sidewalk star outside the venue honors him.