CHICAGO — It was reviewing movies that made Roger Ebert as famous and wealthy as many of the stars who felt the sting or caress of his pen or were the recipients of his televised thumbs-up or thumbs-down judgments. But in his words and in his life he displayed the soul of a poet whose passions and interests extended far beyond the darkened theaters where he spent so much of his professional life.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 45 years and for more than three decades the co-host of one of the most powerful programs in television history (initially with the late Gene Siskel, the movie critic for the Chicago Tribune, and, following Siskel’s death in 1999, with his Sun-Times collogue Richard Roeper), Ebert died Thursday, according to a family friend.
He was 70.
He was no stranger to hospitals. In his later years he was beset by a series of maladies and operations that robbed from him parts of his face and the ability to speak (he was a celebrated conversationalist), eat and drink (he was prodigiously accomplished at both) and to take long walks in foreign cities (London and Venice, most romantically).
Even still, he kept writing and remained as active as he could be. He was planning to host the 15th-annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival later this month in his hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Ill.
Prolific almost to the point of disbelief — the Weekend section of the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine of his reviews on any given Friday — Ebert was arguably the most powerful movie critic in the history of that art form. He was also the author of 15 books, a contributor to various magazines, author of the liveliest of bloggers and an inspiring teacher and lecturer at the University of Chicago.
He began selling freelance stories and book reviews to the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times during this time and after coming to Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago. In 1966, he was hired as a writer for the Sun-Times’ Midwest magazine. Six months later he became movie critic.
His reviews, from the start and ever since, were at once artful and accessible. In 1975 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first such criticism prize to be awarded for film criticism by the Pulitzers.
These were raucous newspapering days (and nights) and Ebert was part of the crowd that often congregated at such bygone saloons as Riccardo’s and O’Rourke’s on Chicago’s North Avenue. It was there that Ebert would entertain the crowd of colleagues and admirers with his sharp wit, boyish playfulness and charming erudition.
Competition between rival newspaper reporters and critics was savage in those days as Siskel, then the Tribune’s movie critic, later recalled, “We intensely disliked each other. We perceived each other as a threat to our well-being.”
But in 1975, Eliot Wald, a producer at the local PBS station, WTTW-TV, had the idea of pairing Siskel and Ebert on a television show about movies and persuaded them both to give it a shot. Thea Flaum was the executive producer of what was then called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.”
The early shows now appear as crude and unpolished as some of the shows on cable access. But at the time it was refreshing. Here were two men who, in physical appearance and personality, were unlike anything else on the tube.
These were not the typically neatly coiffed and sun-brushed talking heads. And they were not prim and polite; they argued.
Their enthusiasm for and knowledge of movies was palpable, and by providing clips from current releases they were giving viewers a consumer-friendly, witty, intelligent and entertaining package.
Still, few could have predicted either the eventual success of the show or the natural fit of the two personalities; they were uncannily well-matched and early on showed the ability to turn debate into an art.
In 1999 Siskel died after a quiet battle against complications that arose after a growth was removed from his brain 10 months earlier. He was only 53.
“I remember after we first started out,” Ebert recalled at the time, “and we were on a talk show and this old actor Buddy Rogers said to us, ‘The trouble with you guys is that you have a sibling rivalry.’ We did. He was like a brother, and I loved him that way.”
Though their on-air chemistry was deemed by the public more contentious than it actually was, Ebert recently summarized the relationship thusly: “How meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.”
Ebert carried on with show, teaming with Roeper for “Ebert & Roeper & the Movies,” which began airing in 2000. Although his name remained in the title, Ebert did not appear on the show after mid-2006, when he suffered post-surgical complications for his thyroid cancer and was unable to speak. He ended his association with the show in July 2008. His last TV venture, “Ebert Presents: At the Movies,” ran for a short time early in 2011, his reviews voiced by others, including Bill Kurtis and this reporter.
He continued to write, devoting a great deal of time to his popular blog (rogerebert.com), where he discussed movies, among many topics, and detailed personal stories about his struggles and joys, including his bout with booze, which ended in 1979 when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Many of those memories formed the foundation for his easygoing, candid and altogether charming 2011 autobiography, or, as he titled it, “Life Itself: A Memoir.”
An enthusiastic and self-proclaimed aficionado of beautiful and accomplished women — he had a bit of a crush and a friendship with Oprah Winfrey for a short time — Ebert married trial attorney Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith on July 18, 1993.
His affection for her and her extended family peppers the book, and his love for her is palpable: “My life as an independent adult began after I met Chaz.”
So is his gratitude for her indefatigable devotion during his operations and rehabilitations, writing: “I was very sick. … This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. … Her love was like a wind pushing me from the grave.”
His wife Chaz survives him.