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 years old.
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.
Prolific almost to the point of disbelief—the Weekend section of the Sun-Times often featured as many as nine on some days. Ebert 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..
Roger Joseph Ebert was born in downstate Urbana on June 18, 1942, the only child of Walter, an electrician, and Annabel, a bookkeeper.
His passion for journalism sparked early. He published his own neighborhood paper while in grammar school and in high school was co-editor of the school paper, published a science fiction fanzine and wrote for The News-Gazette in Champaign. His desire to attend Harvard University thwarted by his parents inability to afford that Ivy League institution, he attended the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in journalism and was editor of the campus paper, The Daily Illini.
He began selling freelance stories and book reviews to the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times during this time and after coming to here to pursue a PhD. 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 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 newspapers 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-Ch. 11, 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.
The show became more popular with each season, taking a new name, “Sneak Previews,” and gaining a national audience when it was syndicated on PBS in 1978 and where it would become for a time the most highly rated show in PBS history. In 1982, the pair signed with Tribune Entertainment and renamed the program “At the Movies.” In 1986 they were lured into the fold of Buena Vista Television, a division of the Walt Disney Co., and changed the show’s name to “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.”
By this time the TV show had made Siskel and Ebert rich and famous. It had also made them the most powerful critics in the world, according to many polls and industry experts, and American pop cultural icons, sometimes referred to as “Sisbert.” They spawned imitators and were firmly embedded in the American celebrity fabric due to frequent appearances on the “Tonight” show, “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Oprah.”
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-years-old.
“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.”