Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert unexpectedly passed away Thursday at the age of 70, two days after announcing his cancer had returned and was cutting back on his workload. Ebert had been battling with thyroid cancer, which robbed him of his voice. However, it turned out he also developed cancer in his leg.
There were plans to relaunch his website (rogerebert.com) under new ownership, which was previously held under the Sun-Times and Wrapports. He announced on Tuesday he was taking “a leave of presence” due to mounting health issues.
Ebert was born in Urbana, IL in 1948, and went to the nearby University of Illinois in Champaign and majored in journalism. Ebert ran the student paper.
In 1966, Ebert was hired by the Chicago-Sun-Times to write for Midwest Magazine, and six months later, became their film critic. In 1975, Ebert won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. In addition to his work for the Sun-Times, Ebert gave his reviews during WMAQ-TV’s (and later WLS-TV’s) local newscasts.
In 1975, Ebert was paired with crosstown rival film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune to launch a local film review show titled for WTTW titled Opening Soon To A Theater Near You, which later became Sneak Previews. The show would become one of PBS’ most popular offerings.
In 1982, the duo crossed over to commercial television and signed on with Tribune Entertainment for the syndicated At The Movies. In 1986, both men left Tribune and signed on with Buena Vista Television (now Disney-ABC Domestic Television Distribution) for Siskel & Ebert. After Gene Siskel’s death in 1999 due from complications of brain cancer, fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper took over as Ebert’s co-host and the series was renamed Ebert & Roeper.
Due to health issues, Ebert stepped down from the show in 2006 and a variety of guest co-hosts filled in alongside Richard Roeper, and by this time, was named At The Movies with Ebert and Roeper. Both men disassociated themselves from the show in 2008 after a contract dispute with Disney-ABC, and were replaced by other hosts. Disney-ABC canceled At The Movies in 2010 after 24 years of syndicating a weekly movie-review show.
A few months later, Ebert returned home to PBS to relaunch At The Movies, with two new co-hosts and a guest narrator reading Ebert’s review of a movie. The series was put on “hiatus” in December 2011 due to a lack of funding and is now unlikely to return.
And outside of the movies, Ebert was not shy about expressing his views – particularly in politics, where he was liberal. In 2008, he called his Sun-Times colleague Jay Mariotti “a rat” after he left the paper and blasted print after years of taking money from them.
Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were not your run-of-the-critics who looked like they were just re-assigned from a newspaper’s crime beat to review movies. They knew movies, and they were passionate about them. They understood how they were made. They knew structure, plot, and character development of a movie. When you heard the words “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” (which both started to use during the Buena Vista era of their show), you knew instantly how they felt about the film.
But more often than not, both would arrive at a split decision and spark quite passionate debates about the film – and it made great television.
Siskel & Ebert pioneered the debate show – descendents such as Crossfire, Around The Horn, and Pardon The Interruption (and just about every cable news show) should owe their gratitude to them.
One thing you can say about Roger Ebert… he loved films. And educated so many people about them.
Author. Film Critic. Educator. It would be an understatement to say there wouldn’t be another one like him. Rest in peace, Roger Ebert. I hope they saved a seat up there for you.
Roger Ebert is survived by his wife, Chaz.
And the balcony is closed.