Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois, the son of Annabel (née Stumm) and German American Walter H. Ebert, an electrician. Ebert's interest in journalism began when he was a student at Urbana High School, where he was a sports writer for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois; however, he began his writing career with letters of comment to the science fiction fanzines of the era. He became involved in science fiction fandom, writing articles for fanzines, including Richard A. Lupoff's Xero. In his senior year, he was co-editor of his high school newspaper, The Echo. In 1958, he won the Illinois High School Association state speech championship in Radio Speaking, an event that simulates radio newscasts.
Roger Ebert began his career as a professional critic in 1967, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, in 1975. As of 2010, his columns were syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad. Ebert also published more than 20 books and dozens of collections of reviews.
In 1975, Ebert and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune began co-hosting a weekly film review television show, Sneak Previews, which was locally produced by the Chicago public broadcasting station WTTW. The show was picked up by PBS in 1978 for national distribution. The duo became famous for their "thumbs up/thumbs down" review summaries. (Ebert's estate and Gene Siskel's widow, Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, still own the trademark phrase "Two Thumbs Up.")
In 1982, they moved from PBS to launch a similar syndicated commercial television show named At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. In 1986 they again moved the show to new ownership, creating Siskel & Ebert & The Movies through Buena Vista Television (part of the Walt Disney Company). After Siskel's death in 1999, the producers retitled the show Roger Ebert & the Movies and used rotating co-hosts. In September 2000, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper became the permanent co-host and the show was renamed At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper (and other later titles).
Ebert was the first film critic to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ebert co-wrote the screenplay for the 1970 Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and sometimes joked about being responsible for the film, which was poorly received on its release but is now regarded as a cult classic. Ebert and Meyer also made Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Up!, and other films, and were involved in the ill-fated Sex Pistols movie Who Killed Bambi? (In April 2010, Ebert posted his screenplay of Who Killed Bambi? aka Anarchy in the UK on his blog.)
Ebert compiled "best of the year" movie lists beginning in the 1960s, thereby helping provide an overview of his critical preferences.His top choices were:
He also frequently lamented that cinemas outside major cities are "booked by computer from Hollywood with no regard for local tastes", making high-quality independent and foreign films virtually unavailable to most American moviegoers.
Ebert was a strong advocate for Maxivision 48, in which the movie projector runs at 48 frames per second, as compared to the usual 24 frames per second. He was opposed to the practice whereby theatres lower the intensity of their projector bulbs in order to extend the life of the bulb, arguing that this has little effect other than to make the film harder to see. Ebert was skeptical of the recent resurgence of 3D effects in film, which he found unrealistic and distracting.
Chaz Ebert is now vice president of the Ebert Company and has emceed Ebertfest.
In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. In February, surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital successfully removed the cancer with clean margins. He later underwent surgery in 2003 for cancer in his salivary gland, and in December of that year, underwent a four-week follow-up course of radiation to his salivary glands, which altered his voice slightly. Ebert continued to be a dedicated critic of film, not missing a single opening while undergoing treatment.
Ebert underwent further surgery on June 16, 2006, two days before his 64th birthday, to remove additional cancerous tissue near his right jaw, which included removing a section of jaw bone. On July 1, Ebert was hospitalized in serious condition after his carotid artery burst near the surgery site and he "came within a breath of death". He later learned that the burst was likely a side effect of his treatment, which involved neutron beam radiation. He was subsequently kept bedridden to prevent further damage to the scarred vessels in his neck while he slowly recovered from multiple surgeries and the rigorous treatment. At one point, his status was so precarious that Ebert had a tracheotomy performed on his neck to reduce the effort of breathing while he recovered. Although it was not revealed at the time, Ebert also lost the ability both to speak and to eat or drink (so that he would have to use a feeding tube).
Ebert had pre-taped enough TV programs with his co-host Richard Roeper to keep him on the air for a few weeks; his extended convalescence necessitated a series of "guest critics" to co-host with Roeper: Jay Leno, Kevin Smith, John Ridley, Toni Senecal, Christy Lemire, Michael Phillips, Aisha Tyler, Fred Willard, Anne Thompson, A.O. Scott, Mario Van Peebles, George Pennacchio, Brad Silberling, and John Mellencamp. Michael Phillips later became Ebert's replacement for the remainder of Roeper's time on At the Movies, until mid-2008, when Roeper did not extend his contract with ABC.
In October 2006, Ebert confirmed his bleeding problems had been resolved. He was undergoing rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago due to lost muscle mass, and later underwent further rehabilitation at the Pritikin Center in Florida." After a three-month absence, the first movie he reviewed was The Queen. Ebert made his first public appearance since mid-2006 at Ebertfest on April 25, 2007. He was unable to speak but communicated through his wife, Chaz, using written notes. His opening words to the crowd of devout fans at the festival were a quote from the film he co-wrote with Russ Meyer, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: "It's my happening and it freaks me out." Also in April 2007, in an interview with WLS-TV in Chicago, he said, "I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers — so what?" On April 23, the Sun-Times reported that, when asked about his decision to return to the limelight, Ebert remarked, "We spend too much time hiding illness."
Ebert returned to reviewing on May 18, 2007, when three of his reviews were published by the Chicago Sun-Times, and he returned to his website, a role that his editor had shouldered during the critic's illness. Thereafter, he slowly worked back to his previous output of 5–6 reviews a week plus a "Great Movies" review. He also resumed his "Answer Man" column. In a July 21, 2007, commentary on a rebuttal to Clive Barker, he revealed that he was still unable to speak, but he could still write. He posted reviews of the 2006 film Casino Royale and the 2007 films, Zodiac and Ratatouille with a note that he was in the process of going back and reviewing some of the movies that were released during his absence. A regular attendee of the Toronto International Film Festival, he attended in 2007, while awaiting surgery that was hoped to restore his voice.
Ebert adopted a computerized voice system to communicate. He initially chose to use a voice with a British accent that he named "Lawrence",but then switched to a high quality voice with an American accent included with Mac OS X named "Alex". According to Ebert, he did not miss the activity of eating or drinking so much as the camaraderie of dining with friends.
Ebert underwent further surgery on January 24, 2008, this time in Houston, to address the complications from his previous surgeries. A statement from Ebert and his wife indicated that "the surgery went well, and the Eberts look forward to giving you more good news..." but on April 1, his 41st anniversary as a film critic at the Sun-Times, Ebert announced that there had been further complications and his speech had not been restored. He wrote, "I am still cancer-free, and not ready to think about more surgery at this time. I should be content with the abundance I have." His columns resumed shortly after the April 23 opening of his annual film festival at the University of Illinois. During his various surgeries, doctors carved bone, tissue and skin from his back, arm, and legs, and transplanted them in an attempt to reconstruct his jaw and throat, though these transplants would each be unsuccessful, and eventually removed. As a result of these procedures, his right shoulder was visibly smaller than his left, and his legs had been scarred and weakened.
On April 18, 2008, it was announced that Ebert had fractured his hip in a fall, a result of the weakening of his body following the unsuccessful tissue transplants, and had undergone surgery to repair it.
By 2010, Ebert had a full-time, live-in nurse to attend to him when he needed assistance. Although doctors asked him to allow them to make one more attempt to restore his voice, Ebert refused, indicating that he was done with surgery, and would likely decline significant intervention even if his cancer returned, since he felt that the last procedure he underwent did more harm than good. Regarding his death one day, he stated in 2010:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.Ebert employed a Scottish company called CereProc, which custom-tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers who record their voices at length before losing them, and mined tapes and DVD commentaries featuring Ebert to create a voice that sounded more like his own voice. He used the voice they devised for him in his March 2, 2010, appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in which he discussed his methods of coping with the loss of his voice and his other post-surgical difficulties.
Ebert later proposed a test to determine the realism of a synthesized voice. By January 2011, Ebert had been given a prosthesis for his chin created by University of Illinois craniofacial doctors and other specialists. The prosthesis, which took two years to fabricate, was worn by Ebert on Ebert Presents: At the Movies, in a medium shot of him that was used for the "Roger's Office" segment. In December 2012, Ebert was hospitalized with a fractured hip, which his wife Chaz jokingly blamed on "tricky disco dance moves".
On April 2, 2013, Ebert announced that he would be taking a "leave of presence" from his duties because the hip fracture he suffered a few months earlier was determined to be cancerous and he would be receiving radiation treatment. He said, "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."
The closing sentence on his final blog post, two days before his death, said, "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."
Good Night Ebert
Gene saved you the aisle seats.