Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert

Raised in Urbana, IL, Ebert developed an interest early on in movies and writing, contributing to science-fiction fanzines in his teens. At Urbana High School, he was a sports writer for The News-Gazette in Champaign, IL. During his senior year, he was co-editor of his school newspaper, The Echo. He was already demonstrating outstanding talent in 1958, when he won the Illinois High School Association state speech championship in Radio Speaking, with his mock broadcast. While Ebert was best known later on for his work in television, he was a consummate newsman, cultivating strong interests in all facets of journalism, beginning with newspapers and radio. Ebert went on to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Illini. He was also a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. Upon earning his degree, he continued with a graduate study in English under a fellowship at the University of Cape Town. He was a candidate for an English doctorate when fate intervened, setting the course for his life from that point on. He was offered a job as film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, one of the Windy City's two major newspapers - the other being The Chicago Tribune - a job he continued to hold through all the decades of his television notoriety. As his popularity grew with the high-profile position, Ebert became a powerful local voice for film studies and criticism, serving as a guest lecturer for the University of Chicago by teaching a night class on film. Like many movie followers, Ebert eventually stuck his toe into the screenwriting pool, teaming up in 1970 with fabled flesh-peddling filmmaker Russ Meyer to co-write his only produced feature screenplay, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Meyer had helmed the original camp classic, based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann. Both films told the story of starlets coming into their own in show business; the second film was considered a pastiche of the first, more than a sequel. Although the follow-up was a critical failure, both developed a cult following. In 1975, his work landed him the honor of being the first film critic to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. The following year, he began co-hosting a weekly movie review TV show, "Sneak Previews," along with Gene Siskel, the critic for rival newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. The show aired on the local WTTW Chicago station, and was picked up by PBS for national distribution in 1978, where it went on to garner the highest ratings for a weekly public television show. In 1982, Siskel and Ebert became so popular that they moved on to a syndicated, commercial version of the show with a similar format, called, "At the Movies." After a few years, the Emmy-nominated show switched to "Siskel & Ebert" (1986-1999), with their "thumbs up/thumbs down" reviewing style beginning to catch on and become part of the cultural lexicon. Almost a bigger draw for viewers than the actual criticisms was the constant on-air bickering between the polar opposite critics - one being short and rotund, the other tall and balding. Their appearances, coupled with their sometimes catty back-and-forth, often became fodder for comedy sketch programs. They were even encouraged to debate each other when serving as guests on late-night talk shows. The two were so conjoined in the public's mind that they were rarely asked to appear apart from each other. At times their banter seemed to verge on the edge of real hostility, as each joked that he could not stand the other outside of work. However, this was allegedly far from true, and Ebert was one of the people most devastated when his partner fell ill at the peak of their TV success. In 1998, Siskel underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. He announced in early 1999 that he was taking a leave of absence, but that he expected to be back by the fall, writing in his column, "I'm in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I." Unfortunately, he died from complications of the surgery two weeks later, at the age of 53. Ebert, who attended the funeral, was rattled far more than perhaps even he had thought possible at the loss of his professional sparring partner of over two decades. Following Siskel's death, Ebert hosted the show on his own, under the title, "Roger Ebert & the Movies" on ABC, with a variety of revolving co-hosts, until fellow columnist Richard Roeper was selected as permanent co-host in the fall of 2000. Both would go on to host annual Oscar pre- and post-ceremony telecasts on ABC each year, while at the same time, their new partnership christened a new show titled "Ebert & Roeper" (2001-07). Ebert's newspaper reviews were reprinted in a series of collections, and he also wrote both serious analyses of movies, such as both volumes of The Great Movies and humorous critiques, such as I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary, which featured common movie clichés. With the success of "Ebert & Roeper," as well as the accomplishment of being the only film critic to ever receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June of 2005, Ebert maintained a highly public profile, not only in print, but also online. On his website, he interacted with readers in a question/answer format, and was often taken to task by film buffs who pointed out inconsistencies in his views. He defended himself by pointing out that his reviews are all relative, and that only movies of similar styles and genres should be compared with one another. He has also provided audio commentary tracks on the DVDs of a number of movies for which he felt strongly, including 1941's "Citizen Kane" (the one movie he declared as his pick if stranded on an island), "Casablanca" (1942), "Dark City" (1998) and "Crumb" (1994). As he upped his visibility in all mediums, his personal life had always remained relatively low-key. In 1992, Ebert married trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, gaining a stepdaughter and two step-grandchildren with the union. Unfortunately, beginning in 2002, Ebert began suffering from a series of health problems. He underwent surgery to remove cancer of his thyroid gland and again a year later for cancer in his salivary gland. In late 2003, he also underwent radiation treatment for several weeks as a follow-up, but despite a slightly noticeable change in his voice, he stayed on the job and continued to review movies on his show. In the late spring of 2006, Ebert again underwent surgery for cancer of his salivary gland, which had reoccurred. He was then hospitalized a short time later when a blood vessel burst near the place of his surgery. By mid-summer he was stabilized and doing well, but Ebert filmed enough TV programs with his co-host to keep him on the air for several weeks. However, his extended convalescence necessitated a series of "guest critics" to co-host with Roeper, including Jay Leno, Kevin Smith, John Ridley and Toni Senecal. Although Ebert's health had indeed improved from the earlier life-threatening episode, the cancer had since spread to his mandible. Multiple surgical procedures followed, attempting to rebuild part of his jawbone and throat using tissue and bone scraped from his back, arm and legs. Unfortunately these attempts proved unsuccessful, resulting in a drooping appearance in his decimated jawline. Additionally, a tracheostomy procedure robbed the film critic of his voice and the multiple operations over the course of the year left him substantially weakened. After months of rehabilitation, Ebert made his first public appearance in 2007 at the Ninth Annual Ebertfest - a film festival in which he highlighted unjustly overlooked movies. Proactively responding to the inevitable questions about the wisdom of letting himself be seen in such a deteriorated physical condition, Ebert simply stated, "We spend too much time hiding illness." That same year the indomitable critic returned to reviewing duties on his website and for The Chicago Sun-Times, once again appraising new releases, as well as several of the films that had premiered during his lengthy convalescence. In January 2008, Ebert underwent additional surgery in an attempt to deal with complications connected to the previous procedures and to hopefully restore his voice. Although the outlook was initially promising, in April of that year a statement was released announcing that the surgery had proved unsuccessful and that Ebert's voice had not been restored. Still cancer-free, but unwilling to endure further taxing medical procedures, the critic opted instead for a customized computer text-to-speech software program, which he later utilized in an interview with longtime friend Oprah Winfrey. In recognition of his years of service as one of the country's leading proponents of film, Ebert was made an honorary lifetime member of the Directors Guild of America at an annual award ceremony in January 2009. Less reverential was Disney Television's announcement they would be canceling "At the Movies" after airing its final episode in August 2010. As undeterred as ever, Ebert quickly announced that he would be launching a new program similar in format to "At the Movies" early the following year. In January 2011, a prosthetic chin was manufactured for Ebert by the University of Illinois after a two-year development process involving a team of doctors, reconstruction experts, and an artist. The resulting facsimile would be worn by the revered film critic on his latest television venture, the previously announced "Ebert Presents: At the Movies" (PBS, 2011-12). Co-hosted by film critics Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Ebert appeared separately on a segment called "Roger's Office," during which his reviews were read by renowned broadcaster Bill Kurtis. Unfortunately, this latest television venture lasted less than a year before a lack of financing forced it to shut down production and go on indefinite hiatus. Meanwhile, Ebert continued with his prolific output of film criticism in the pages of the Sun-Times, on his website and through Twitter. In early 2013, he announced that his cancer had returned and that he was taking a "leave of presence." Unfortunately, this leave proved to be final; Ebert died on April 4, 2013, mere days after blogging about his various planned new ventures. A restless thinker and writer right up until the very end, Ebert left behind a singular legacy of film criticism that is unparalleled in its breadth and scope.