Critic Roger Ebert Dies at 70

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Roger Ebert in 2003.

The most famous film critic in history, the Chicago legend worked at the Sun-Times for nearly 50 years; a thumbs-up from him on TV could make or break a movie.

Roger Ebert, the ardent, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who put his indelible thumbprint on the history of film criticism forged from spending a lifetime at the movies, died Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. He was 70. 

In early December, the most famous movie critic of all time described his latest ailment, “a slight and nearly invisible hairline fracture involving my left femur” that immobilized him. “I didn’t fall. I didn’t break it. It just sort of … happened to itself,” he said. On April 3, he revealed that what he thought was a fracture was cancer and that he was undergoing radiation treatment and cutting back on his work.

Since 1967, Ebert had served as the film critic for the Sun-Times. His final review, in which he described Stephenie Meyer’s The Host as having a one-note structure that “robs it of possibilities for dramatic tension,” ran online March 27.

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"For a generation of Americans -- and especially Chicagoans -- Roger was the movies," President Obama said Thursday. "When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive, capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical."

Ebert gained nationwide fame when he and Gene Siskel -- the film critic for the Sun-Times’ crosstown rival Chicago Tribune -- were paired on the Tribune Entertainment syndicated show At the Movies, which debuted in 1982. (The two had created and starred on a similar show, Sneak Previews, for the Chicago PBS station in 1975.) In 1986, they left to create Siskel & Ebert & the Movies for Disney’s Buena Vista Entertainment.

The show, airing on Saturday nights around dinnertime in most major markets, demystified and popularized film criticism as the two chatted and traded opinions after clips of movies were shown. For the Buena Vista edition, Siskel and Ebert came up with their signature "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" appraisals; two thumbs-up (and later two big thumbs-up) was as good as a movie could get.

“Two thumbs-up would appear in a lot of movie ads, so Gene and I trademarked that phrase -- we didn’t trademark our thumbs; I’ve read that a lot,” Ebert recalled in a 2005 interview with the Archive of American Television. “If you go through all sorts of databases, you find that the concept of ‘two thumbs-up’ did not exist until we did it. Before that, things got a thumbs-up, but they didn’t get two thumbs-up.”

Did he enjoy being quoted in print ads? “Any critic who cares about whether he’s quoted in an ad or not must have a bubble for a brain,” he said.

As a tandem, Siskel and Ebert were readily identifiable in a Laurel and Hardy kind of way. Ebert was short, plump, mop-headed and wore glasses; Siskel was tall, thin and balding. They often disagreed in their opinions, and their verbal jousts could be funny. On camera, they often got under each other’s skin. The two, though, always professed to be pals off the set.

After Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999, Ebert teamed on TV with fellow Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper until 2006, when Ebert lost part of his jaw to thyroid cancer, rendering him unable to speak. He would be fitted with a prosthetic chin to make him look more like his former self. Without an ounce of self-pity, Ebert said he looked like “the thing that jumps out of that guy’s intestines in Alien.”

He had undergone surgery in February 2002 for thyroid cancer and had another operation 12 months later after cancer was found in his salivary gland.

Ebert, of Irish, Dutch and German descent, was born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill. He became a sports reporter for his high school paper, then became an editor and columnist for The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois. His father died when he was a freshman in college.

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Ebert began his professional career as a copy boy at the Sun-Times but soon impressed his older colleagues with his knowledge of cinema. Soon, the 25-year-old at the end of the desk was the paper’s movie critic.

“When they looked around the newsroom, I was young and wore my hair long,” Ebert told The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy in 2011. “I had written a couple of features about movie actors and obituaries on Walt Disney and Jayne Mansfield. I had no formal training and no college classes in film; I was an English lit major. I learned on the job and got a lot of feedback from Chicago film lovers who were not much younger than I was.”

In his candid 2011 memoir, Life Itself, Ebert wrote that he eventually would follow the advice of a film critic he admired, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

He spoke lovingly of actors: “I am, beneath everything else, a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who take the risks of performance.”

Ebert picked his top film for every year since 1967, and the bunch includes Bonnie and Clyde, Cries and Whispers, Small Change, Apocalypse Now, House of Games, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Hoop Dreams, Eve’s Bayou, Being John Malkovich, Minority Report, Pan’s Labyrinth, A Separation and, for 2012, ArgoCitizen Kane and La Dolce Vita were among his most favorite films. 

About writer-director John Cassavetes’ emotional 1974 drama A Woman Under the Influence, Ebert wrote in his review: “There is no safe resolution at the end of a Cassavetes film. You feel the tumult of life goes on uninterrupted, that each film is a curtain raised on a play already in progress. The characters seek to give love, receive it, express it, comprehend it. They are prevented by various addictions: booze, drugs, sex, self-doubt. Self-help gurus talk about ‘playing old tapes.’ Cassavetes writes characters whose old tapes are like prison cells; their dialogue is like a call for help from between the bars.”

Ebert also could be acerbic.

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On North (1994), directed by Rob Reiner and starring a young Elijah Wood: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. 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.”

On An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997), starring Ryan O’Neal, Coolio and Eric Idle: “In taking his name off the film, [director] Arthur Hiller has wisely distanced himself from the disaster, but on the basis of what’s on the screen I cannot, frankly, imagine any version of this film that I would want to see. The only way to save this film would be to trim 86 minutes.”

On Tommy Boy (1995), starring David Spade and Chris Farley: “[This] is one of those movies that plays like an explosion down at the screenplay factory. You can almost picture a bewildered office boy, his face smudged with soot, wandering through the ruins and rescuing pages at random. Too bad they didn’t mail them to the insurance company instead of filming them.”

In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Ebert acknowledged that his reviews could determine the fate of a movie. He once noted that a great review he and Siskel gave My Dinner With Andre (1981) -- the review aired on their PBS show on a Friday in New York -- drove audiences to see the obscure film that weekend, and that momentum, the producers told him, kept it in theaters for a year.

“We could tell the intellectual or the film buff, ‘Here’s a popular movie you might like.’ We could tell the popular-movie [fanatic], ‘Here’s a documentary or an art film or a foreign film you might like,’ ” he said in the Archive of American Television interview. “We sold each kind of movie to its opposite audience.”

Ebert returned to TV most recently as managing editor and reviewer for the syndicated PBS show Ebert Presents At the Movies, which aired its last show in December 2011. He also became a persistent blogger.

In addition to his voluminous movie reviews -- one estimate says the number is more than 5,000 -- and essays, Ebert was a prolific author who penned 17 books.

Early in his reviewing career, Ebert moonlighted as a scriptwriter and gained a degree of notoriety for writing three scripts for mammary-movie maven Russ Meyer. He took a six-week leave of absence to pen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), then scripted (under the pseudonym Reinhold Timme) Up! in 1976 and (as R. Hyde) Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens in 1979. That year, after a period of alcohol abuse, he had his last drink, working with Alcoholics Anonymous in recovery.

Ebert also enjoyed doing movie cameos, appearing in such film fare as Pitch (1997), Junket Whore (1998), Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), All the Love You Cannes! (2002) and Abby Singer (2003). On TV, he visited late-night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno often and voiced an animated version of himself on The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz, in 1995.

Ebert always was identified as a son of Chicago. A portion of Erie Street in the city was renamed Siskel & Ebert Way in 1995. Two years later, he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, joining such Windy City luminaries as Ben Hecht and Mike Royko. He received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Chicago Public Library in 2011.

In 1999, Ebert founded EbertFest, a film festival held each spring in Champaign, Ill., home of his alma mater. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005 and four years later was named an honorary life member of the Directors Guild of America.

In September, the Sundance Institute said it would award Ebert with its second Vanguard Leadership Award, in recognition of his advocacy of independent cinema.

And Martin Scorsese said soon afterward that he would executive produce a documentary about Ebert, based on the memoir Life Itself, that would premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival. Ebert wrote one of the first positive reviews for Scorsese’s feature debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), helping to kick-start his career.

Ebert, who vowed not to marry until his mother died (she died in 1987), wed civil rights attorney Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith in 1993. They had no children. Before they married, he went on a couple of dates with a fellow Chicago legend, Oprah Winfrey, who says he persuaded her to take her TV show into syndication.

Below, watch Ebert and Siskel critique Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). One guy thinks it’s a masterpiece, the other doesn’t.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.