Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert dead at 70

Posted April 04, 2013, at 3:47 p.m.
Last modified April 04, 2013, at 7:39 p.m.
Film critic Roger Ebert arrives at the 25th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles in this file photo taken March 5, 2010.  Ebert passed away Thursday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
LUCAS JACKSON | REUTERS
Film critic Roger Ebert arrives at the 25th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles in this file photo taken March 5, 2010. Ebert passed away Thursday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

CHICAGO — Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic famous for his thumbs-up, thumbs-down method of judging movies, has died. He was 70.

He died Thursday in Chicago after a battle with cancer, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, his longtime employer. Ebert lost his ability to speak after complications from surgery in 2006 on cancer in his jaw. In a blog entry on April 2, Ebert said cancer had been discovered in his leg and he was about to begin “a leave of presence” from daily film reviewing.

Ebert rose to national fame while reviewing movies on his weekly syndicated television show alongside Gene Siskel. His work at the Chicago Sun-Times made him, in 1975, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

“Roger is to the movies, and to this newspaper, what baseball is to America — the enduring certainty, the agreed- upon universal, the cherished standard of excellence,” fellow Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote in July 2006.

In 1975, Ebert and Siskel, film critic at the rival Chicago Tribune, began hosting a movie review show on a local Chicago television station. The men were paired for 23 years until Siskel’s death in 1999.

The show, which was picked up by the Public Broadcasting System in 1978 and became commercially syndicated in 1982, brought Ebert national recognition. Originally called “At the Movies,” then “Siskel & Ebert,” it featured the two critics chatting about the week’s new releases and often taking swipes at each other, both for their opinions and their appearances.

The on-screen bickering during their early years was sincere, Thea Flaum, an executive producer on their public television show, said in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“These are two men who never would have chosen each other for friends,” she said. “They have no natural affinity for each other. But TV forced them to find a way to work together.”

The two men grew closer as the years passed. After Siskel died from complications related to a brain tumor, Ebert told the Chicago Tribune that he loved him like a brother. In a 2009 column to mark the 10th anniversary of Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote:

“We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled, ‘Best Enemies.’ It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.”

With Siskel gone, Ebert began hosting the show with fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. “At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper” appeared in 200 television markets and was the top- rated weekly syndicated half-hour television show.

Ebert was never one to mince words if he had strong feelings on a movie and would occasionally unleash a scalding review. Among his most notable roastings was his 1994 critique of Rob Reiner’s “North,” which starred Elijah Wood, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it,” Ebert wrote. “Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

Ebert said in the introduction to his 2002 book, “The Great Movies,” that he had viewed 47 movies one frame at a time. He sought to strike a balance between the erudite world of film theory and the more pedestrian concerns of his readers.

“The perfect review should indeed allow a reader to determine whether he or she is likely to enjoy or appreciate a film — but that does not require the critic to agree with the reader,” he said in a 2003 interview with movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. “The critic who tries to reflect public taste casts himself in the role of the ventriloquist’s dummy, with the public of course acting as the ventriloquist.”

Ebert occasionally worked on the other side of the camera. He wrote the screenplays for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970), “Up!” (1976) and ‘Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens” (1979).

Roger Joseph Ebert was born on June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill. His father was an electrician at the nearby University of Illinois and his mother was a bookkeeper.

He knew he wanted to be a journalist when he was 6, he told the New York Times in a 2005 interview. He said he was inspired by his best friend’s father, a reporter for the local paper.

“I didn’t know what a reporter did, but I thought it was great you got your name in the paper,” he said.

He began his journalism career at 15, as a sportswriter for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette. At the University of Illinois, he served as editor of the Daily Illini and graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications. He then spent a year at the University of Cape Town in South Africa through a Rotary International fellowship.

Ebert began studying for his doctorate at the University of Chicago, and left the school when the Chicago Sun-Times offered him a features writing position in 1966. He was named the newspaper’s film critic the next year.

He won his Pulitzer for criticism in the fifth year after that category was created. He was honored for his writings in 1974, a year that featured films such as Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”

Even after spending his adult life in Chicago, Ebert never forgot his hometown. Every April since 1999 he hosted Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival on the University of Illinois campus there.

Ebert and his wife, Chaz, married in 1993.

Good movies can provide people with an out-of-body experience, Ebert wrote in “The Great Movies.”

“The audience for a brief time is somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with lives that are not its own,” he wrote. “Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”

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