The Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper where Roger Ebert unexpectedly got his start reviewing movies, reports that Ebert, 70, passed away today in Chicago. The iconic movie critic who wrote for the Times for 46 years and was on television for 31 had been battling cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland for the past decade. As a result of the treatment of his condition Ebert lost his lower jaw, the ability to speak and eat through his mouth in 2006.
Despite the setbacks in his health, Ebert remained dedicated to his work, reviewing 285 movies a year. His efforts have been celebrated throughout his career. In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and in 2005, his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Shortly after he won the Pulitzer, Ebert achieved national recognition and notereity when he and Gene Siskel became the famous duo “Siskel and Ebert” launching their show “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You.” The show would go through several name changes but it was most popularly called, “Siskel & Ebert & The Movies” in 1986, when the partners moved to Buena Vista. This was also around the same time Ebert coined the catch phrase that would enter the lexicon: “two thumbs up.”
Born in 1942, Ebert knew he wanted to be a journalist from a very early age. He got his start working for the high school section of the News- Gazette in Champaign-Urbana. He attended the University of Illinois and studied abroad in South Africa on a Rotary Scholarship. He was accepted to the University of Chicago where he planned to earn his doctorate in English but he was given a job in journalism first.
He started reviewing movies, a profession that wasn’t regarded with much respect at the time. As we know now he had a knack for recognizing classic pieces of work. Ebert was one of the few mainstream critics who was able to critically and intelligently review black films without dismissing them as other critics have so often done out of ignorance or lack of accessibility.
But films weren’t the only places he was able to spot talent. In the ’80’s Ebert dated Oprah Winfrey and was allegedly the man who told her she could take her local television show, “AM Chicago” and receive national syndication. Oprah took the advice.
He also was an early investor in Google, a decision that would earn him millions of dollars throughout his later years.
In his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself, Ebert admitted that because he was afraid of displeasinig his controlling, alcoholic mother, he would never marry while she was alive. So after she was gone, in 1992, at 40 years old, he married attorney Chaz Hammel-Smith (later Hammelsmith). Ebert described his love for Chaz in his autobiography.
“She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she is the love of my life, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone.”
Before he passed, Ebert and his good friend Martin Scorsese were in talks about adapted Ebert’s autobiography into a film.
Ebert is survived by his wife, a step daughter and two step-grandchildren.