Ebert makes first appearance since surgery

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill.  -- What Roger Ebert couldn't say Wednesday night at the opening of his Overlooked Film Festival, his smile said for him.

A tracheostomy has left the 64-year-old film critic unable to speak. But at his first public appearance since cancer surgery last June, Ebert smiled widely as he walked through the Virginia Theatre, accepting handshakes, hugs and a couple of standing ovations from movie buffs and friends.

Last November, confined to a Chicago hospital bed, Ebert considered canceling the festival, said his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert. But festival officials told them passes already had been sold, and he committed to coming to the festival in Champaign and nearby Urbana, his hometown.

"You know, I think it did him a world of good," she said in an interview backstage. "It helped to energize him."

Ebert, considered the dean of American film critics, has been largely out of action since last summer. He has written occasional reviews but hasn't appeared on the "Ebert & Roeper" TV show.

Friends, including Jim Emerson of Seattle, say they've missed his voice and work. Emerson has worked with Ebert in various capacities since 1994 and now edits his Web site.

"When you work with somebody every day and you're e-mailing back and forth every day, and all the sudden it just stops, it's like there's this huge, yawning gap in your life," Emerson said.

Ebert on Wednesday showed some physical effects of his first surgery, in which doctors removed a cancerous growth from his salivary gland and right jaw, taking part of the jaw in the process. Two weeks later, a blood vessel burst near the site of the operation, forcing emergency surgery.

Ebert walked slowly through the 86-year-old movie house, where he said through his wife that he had watched "Gone with the Wind" and his father saw Marx Brothers films.

In an e-mailed note to reporters and a column in the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this week, Ebert spoke frankly about his appearance, saying he had been warned by friends that showing up would invite both unflattering photos and unkind coverage.

"So what?" Ebert wrote. "I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks."

He wrote that he now awaits another operation that he hopes will restore his speech.

Ebert has been a film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, the same year he teamed up with Gene Siskel of the rival Chicago Tribune to launch their movie-review show. Siskel died in 1999.

Ebert has co-hosted the show with fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper since 2000. Film critics and filmmakers have been subbing for Ebert during his recovery.

Festival organizers set up a recliner at the back of the theater for Ebert. He wrote in his column that he needed it for back pain but said through his wife Wednesday it served another purpose.

She read from a statement, to laughter and applause: "I will fulfill a lifelong dream to have my own La-Z-Boy chair in a movie theater."
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