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Like it or not, Roger Ebert was THE American film critic in the public mind.

But I heartily disliked his popular show with Gene Siskel throughout its 23-year run. Movies, I thought, at the very least, deserved more than a thumb stuck up or down.

Even more, I had little but distaste for the wandering pillow fight Siskel and Ebert took from talk show to talk show – almost everywhere but Bar Mitzvahs and supermarket openings.

What I neglected to realize back then was that the status his TV show with Siskel gave him reflected on an entire profession, whether we wanted to admit it or not.

But off the air and on the page, he continued to be a dedicated, passionate, readable and knowledgeable critic – by far the better of the two, even if he never seemed to quite deserve his 1975 Pulitzer Prize.

And then in 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times critic and national institution suffered an almost unimaginable calamity for a household word on American television – a bout with salivary cancer that ultimately led to his death on Thursday.

Richard Roeper had taken over Siskel’s role after he died in 1999, but Ebert was forced to end his association with the show in 2008.

It was his career in the past six or seven years – when circumstances forced him back to the world of print and online journalism – that, I’d submit, became as noble as any in all of journalism.

I sat next to him once at a movie screening at the Toronto Film Festival. To cover up the ravages of his illness, he went everywhere with a kind of bandito scarf around his neck. Talking and conventional eating were, he openly reported, impossible for him. But I can tell you from firsthand experience, mere breathing wasn’t easy either.

Not only did Ebert stubbornly – and often brilliantly – continue being what he was in print and online, but this former pioneer in broadcast journalism became a passionate spokesman for print journalism itself in an age when the Digital World was beating it black and blue.

Especially in his blog, Ebert was as stout a defender of American newspaper journalism as it had ever had.

The man who had symbolized for many the words “movie critic” also came to symbolize for many in his profession “Newspaper Man.”

The Pulitzer Prize that he may not have entirely deserved in the entire journalistic landscape of 1975, he came – through his work of the past five years at least – to deserve 10 times over.

If there is ever to be a first posthumous Pulitzer Prize presented to a journalist for his life’s work, let me recommend Roger Ebert as its first recipient.

Failing that, it is nothing if not just that there are very important Hollywoodians passionately interested in turning Ebert’s life into a movie – especially final years that were, I’d offer, quite literally heroic.

You have to wish them nothing but success.

It’s tragic that it had to end at 70, and after so much suffering.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com