May 2013 Column-Irish American News

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert




Mike Houlihan

I know a miracle when I see one. And I’ve been the lucky recipient of many blessings in my life.  I’ve benefited from lots of little ones, found a quarter on LaSalle street just the other day, as well as major miracles, like meeting and marrying my wife. People still say, “How did she wind up with that wack-job?”

“Tis a miracle!”

Attributing the tiny victories to my unwavering trust in the Lord is what paves the way for the really big miracles.

And last month I caught a doozie. Now you’ve probably been listening to Roger Ebert stories up the ying-yang over the last several weeks, but I’m hoping you can fit one more into your ol’ wazoo because here’s mine.

We never met in person. By the time I got around to introducing myself he was already in poor health and we communicated by email only.

It was August of 2007 and I was trying to get my indie film, “Tapioca”, into the Chicago International Film Festival. I sent him an email and let him know I was once with the Sun-Times and how “I’m hoping you can help me.”

The friendship started when he responded almost immediately, “Have always enjoyed your writing!”

Yes, I’m counting that as another miracle.

So we began corresponding as I kept trying to push Tapioca in film festivals all over the world, hoping he would watch it and I’d soon be picking up my Oscar.

I pitched him on joining us in Park City Utah when Tapioca was screening; figured he’d be there for Sundance. But he sent regrets, “Won’t be able to attend this year because of srugery (sic).”

Then in November of 2008 we were premiering “Tapioca” at The Siskel Theatre on State Street and I had sent him a DVD of the film hoping to get him to review it. I didn’t hear anything back. Finally a week before the screening I emailed again. He wrote back, “The blasted DVD has disappeared! There’s still time….Just slip it through the slot. Hard for me to get to the door in a hurry.”

I put two DVDs in an envelope with press release and note and grabbed my son Billy, “YougottagetthistoEbert’shouserightnow,notimetolose,justdropitintheslot!”

When Billy returned I wanted all the details, “Whathappened?”

He smiled at me, “He’s got it NOW!”

Then we waited.

And waited. Running to the newsstand every day, (yes it was many years ago in 2008 when people still read newspapers), and searching for his verdict on our film. Nothing.

The day before the premiere I sent him an urgent note, “What’s the deal? Are you going to review Tapioca?”

Billy and I waited by the computer and then his response flashed on the screen.

“I viewed it Mike, but I won’t review it, because I don’t believe my review would do you any good. Cheers, R”

Billy looked at me, “What the hell does that mean?”

It means he hated it. He hated it so much that he’s going to do us the favor of NOT reviewing it. At least he didn’t say, “Your movie sucks!”

Billy looked at me, “Well, yeah he kinda did.”

But I knew there was more to it than that. I didn’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews anyway. I thought “Barfly” was total dog crap and he loved it!

But something about Tapioca had set him off. The film is an allegorical comedy with many Catholic references about the ultimate redemption of an alcoholic man.

Years later I would read of Ebert’s own alcoholism and his “disillusionment” with Catholicism. But I’ll never really know what it was about Tapioca that turned him off.

And he actually was doing me a favor. If he had reviewed it negatively I would have just written him off as a total douche, as I did with another Sun-Times critic who panned Tapioca.

So I replied to Roger, “Okay thanks for taking a look.” And left it at that. Who knows when we’d meet again.

Five years later I was about to premiere my new film OUR IRISH COUSINS, again at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I sent Roger a DVD with my pitch.

We were scheduled to premiere in the middle of March and by the end of February I hadn’t heard anything back from Roger. I forwarded the first email with another request. Nothing.

Now it was the day before the Oscars and I’m checking to see what Roger’s writing about and it’s all Oscars and I figured I had nothing to lose so I send another email.

“Hey Roger! F*ck the Oscars! What about OUR IRISH COUSINS?”

Less than an hour later comes his response, “I’m in hospital. I’ll assign it for review on my relaunched website and hopefully for the CST!”

We wound up with a rave review with 3 stars! You can read that miraculous review at

He even tweeted a plug for the film to his 825,000 Twitter followers on St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote him saying, “I have tears of joy on my face…”

The review came out on March 6th, OUR IRISH COUSINS premiered on March 13th and just a little over three weeks later, Roger died. But not before leaving a delightful gift for our little Irish film.

I went to his funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral. Had Roger come home to the church in his final days? Lord knows, but I’ll tell you this, I know a miracle when I see one. God keep his lovely soul. Thanks Roger!