Writer, film critic. Born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Illinois, Roger Ebert, along with his longtime television partner Gene Siskel, is perhaps the most noted movie critic in film history. With their popular syndicated show Siskel and Ebert became almost as celebrated and famous as the movies and movie stars they covered.
Ebert, the only child of Annabel and Walter Ebert, came from a modest background. His father was an electrician who earned enough to keep his family out of hard times, but was determined to see that his son carve out a bigger future for himself. As a young child Roger Ebert loved to write, and thanks to a close relationship with his aunt Martha, developed an appreciation for the movies. He also adored newspapers and books and at an early age was writing and publishing his own local paper, the Washington Street Times, which he named after the street where his house was located. In high school he edited the school’s paper, and even developed his own science fiction fanzine. To earn extra money he also wrote for The News-Gazette in Champaign, where his style and talent were on full display. He captured first place in the Illinois Associated Press sports writing contest his senior year, beating out a whole crop of much more seasoned reporters.
Ebert’s father died of lung cancer in 1960, shortly after he began attending the University of Illinois. Ebert quickly rose in the ranks at the school’s paper, earning the role of editor in chief by his senior year, in 1964. He stayed in school another year to pursue a Ph.D. in English, but soon abandoned the dream to write full time.
Ebert’s decision paid off in 1966, when he was hired to write for the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sunday magazine. Six months later, after the paper’s society reporter died, the green reporter was tapped to become the paper’s new film critic. From the get-go, Ebert demonstrated an energized gusto for writing about film that few could match. On his very first day at his new job, he gave readers a look at the French film Galia, using the film to advance his overall opinion about the entire genre of French “New Wave” movies. “We have been treated to a parade of young French girls running gaily toward the camera in slow motion,” he wrote, “their hair waving in the wind in just such a way that we know immediately they are liberated, carefree, jolly and doomed.” It’s doubtful anyone could have predicted the prestige and longevity Ebert would bring to the position. Certainly his bosses didn’t sense anything; his appointment was buried on page 57 of the paper’s April 5, 1967 edition.
As he had in school, Ebert soon developed a reputation at the paper as a hard worker and a fast writer, someone whose quick mind and quicker typing skills drew the envy of his colleagues. By the mid 1970s Roger Ebert was already entrenched as a highly regarded movie critic and magazine writer—in 1975 he came the first film critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize— and was approached by a local television producer about bringing his work to the world of television. The idea seemed like a novelty at the time: bring together two highly charged film critics from competing newspapers and let them air out their opinions each week for the cameras.
Ebert was an obvious choice. So was Gene Siskel, a movie critic for the Chicago Tribune, whose more reserved, less bombastic style clashed nicely with Ebert’s more outgoing flair. The show, initially titled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, first aired in September 1975 and proved to be an immediate success. By the end of its first season, the program was showcased on more than 100 public television stations. Three years later PBS, which had secured the rights to the program, brought the show to 180 markets.
While the show’s popularity certainly fattened the wallets of the two critics, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the program began to make them rich. In 1982 the pair earned $500,000 apiece for the season. Four years later, after Walt Disney Co. purchased the program, the two critics doubled their salaries.
As the show’s stars became increasingly household names, their influence took off. One way the pair flexed their muscles was to draw attention to issues that stirred their passions. Their campaign for an adult movie rating in part sparked the creation of the NC-17 rating. Other themed shows condemned colorization and pushed for full-screen letterbox images on video releases and more usage of black-and-white film. They also championed independent and foreign-language films, as well as documentaries otherwise doomed to fall through the cracks.
Both men continued to write for their respective papers. Ebert also authored an assortment of books that expanded his thoughts on film. But it was their television work, (producers finally settled on the title At the Movies) that put them on the map. Viewers loved their clashes, their opinionated battles over plots, performances, and direction. They also loved their famous “thumbs up, thumbs down” approval meter, an idea Ebert claims he developed.
In 1992, after a series of relationships, Roger Ebert’s personal life settled down when he married Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith, a divorced mother of two.
Not surprisingly, Ebert’s relationship with Siskel mellowed as well. Over the years, the once fiercely competitive writers grew extremely close. Today, Ebert’s Chicago-area brownstone is adorned with pictures of his good friend, who passed away in February 1999 from a brain tumor.
Siskel’s death, however, did not signal the death of At the Movies. To continue on with the work he and his partner had started, and perhaps to keep his friend’s memory alive, Ebert chose to keep the program going. With the help of his wife Chaz, Ebert tried out a parade of guest hosts before settling on Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper as Siskel’s replacement.
Off-screen, Ebert continued to move forward as well. He wrote more books and even took the hard steps toward losing weight. But in 2002, the celebrated critic experienced significant health issues of his own. A cancerous thyroid necessitated surgery, which Ebert seemingly recovered from, allowing him to return to the paper and his TV show. A year later, however, he was back in the hospital, this time to remove a growth on his salivary glands, a procedure that required radiation treatment.
In 2006 doctors discovered more cancer, this time in Ebert’s mouth. To get at the tumor, surgeons cut out a part of his lower jaw. The procedure seemed to be a success, but just as Ebert was about to head home, he suffered a devastating medical emergency: his carotid artery, which had been damaged by the radiation and surgery, burst. Blood rushed out of his mouth.
The situation and procedures that followed changed Ebert’s life in unimaginable ways. His voice was taken away from him, as was his ability to eat or drink. He then underwent a tracheostomy, which now forces him to get his nutrition through a tube that runs through his stomach. Attempts were made through more surgeries to reconstruct Ebert’s jaw from bone and tissue taken from other parts of his body. But none of the efforts succeeded. And so, the man who had made a living with his words and voice, settled into this new phase of life.
The surgeries spelled the end of his television appearances, but not his writing or his public appearances. Ebert returned to the Sun-Times and continued to review films. In 2008, he also started to write an online journal. What had started simply as an effort to track his recovery development, soon morphed into a larger look at other areas like politics (Ebert is an unapologetic liberal), death, religion, and other big-picture themes.
The annual EbertFest film festival, which the critic launched in 1999, is still a regular movie-lover’s event in Champagne, Illinois, and Ebert continues to churn out books. One of his latest, Great Movies III, was finished in late 2009.
Ebert’s work, too, has been celebrated. In 2004 he was the first film critic ever to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Five years later, The Director’s Guild of America recognized him with an Honorary Life Member Award. In early 2010, Ebert drew a standing ovation from a crowd that included Hollywood heavyweights like Helen Mirren, Jeff Bridges, and Peter Sarsgaard at the 25th Film Independent Spirit Awards. Matt Dillon, who served as presenter that night, called Ebert “a tireless champion of independent film.”
But all of that has paled in comparison to the developments that took place in early 2010. After several years of speaking with a computer-generated voice that Ebert activated by a keyboard, the writer stumbled across the work of CereProc, a Scottish company that analyzes prior recordings of a person’s voice to recreate a computer generated sound that is extremely similar to how a person actually speaks. For Ebert, there was no shortage of archived sound to draw from and on March 2, 2010, after months of work, he debuted his old voice on Oprah.
As expected, Ebert has used this latest development as an exciting jumping off point. In late March 2010, in the wake of the cancellation of At the Movies (in its most recent incarnation, hosted by critics A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips) Ebert announced on his blog plans to launch a new show.
“We will go full-tilt New Media: Television, net streaming, cell phone apps, Facebook, Twitter, iPad, the whole enchilada,” he wrote. “The disintegration of the old model creates an opening for us. I’m more excited than I would be if we were trying to do the same old same old. I’ve grown up with the Internet. I came aboard back when MCI Mail was the e-mail of choice. I had a forum on CompuServe when it ruled the web. My web site and blog at the Sun-Times site have changed the way I work, and even the way I think. When I lost my speech, I speeded up instead of slowing down.”
He lost his battle with cancer after suffering on and off for many years and has passed away at the age of 70.