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His Brave Last Days: Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

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When the final credits rolled, Roger Ebert was ready. On April 3 doctors told the famed movie critic the cancer he was first diagnosed with a decade ago was not just resurgent but no longer treatable. In response, Ebert, 70, whose disease had long since stolen his ability to talk, signaled he was at peace. “Roger wrote on his notepad, ‘Yup, take me home,'” says his stepdaughter Sonia Evans. The very next day Ebert’s wife of more than 20 years, Chaz, was by his side as he gently slipped away. “She was holding Roger’s hand and whispering in his ear,” says Evans. “He was sitting up in his hospital bed, then closed his eyes, smiled and put his head down. He just went. If I hadn’t seen it, I would not have believed someone could go so peacefully.”

With that, a distinctive voice was finally stilled. A Pulitzer Prize winner who turned his spirited thumbs-up-or-down debates with colleague Gene Siskel into a pop culture touchstone, Ebert held on to his passion for movies and life to the end—though he lost his ability to speak and part of his jaw to cancer in 2006. “Every day he wrote, he blogged, he tweeted,” says friend Thea Flaum. “The ability to communicate kept him going.”

So did the love of his life: Chaz Hammel-Smith, a lawyer whom Ebert wed at age 50 in 1992. “You talk about ‘for better or for worse,'” says Richard Roeper, Ebert’s TV cohost from 2000 to 2006. “You never saw much higher ‘better’ or much lower ‘worse’ than what they experienced. Chaz was by Roger’s side through all the wonderful things that came along with being Roger Ebert, but she was there through the toughest nights and the longest days too.” Says Evans: “You could feel the love. I’d blush seeing them making googly eyes.”

Born in Urbana, Ill., Ebert became a celebrated film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times by his 20s. “Was he something!” says his first editor, James Hoge, who hired him out of college. “There wasn’t a movie made he hadn’t seen.” In 1977 he debuted with Chicago Tribune critic Siskel the nationally syndicated review show Sneak Previews. Rivals at first, the duo became close pals before Siskel’s death in 1999. “I miss Gene so much,” Ebert told PEOPLE that year. “For all the stories about our differences, we were teammates.” Siskel’s wife, Marlene Iglitzen, maintained the friendship. “As long as Roger was alive, a little bit of Gene was too,” she says.

Working up until his death, Ebert was famous for straight-shooting reviews and zest for what he loved – and hated. Actor-director Billy Bob Thornton says he owes his career to Ebert for championing him in his pre-Sling Blade days: “The thing about Roger was that he was fair. It wasn’t every movie I did that he loved. There were some I did that he wasn’t crazy about. And I usually agreed with him.” Even the targets of his pans admired Ebert. “His contagious love of movies deeply moved me and so many other people,” says Rob Schneider, whose Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo famously earned the line “Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks” from Ebert. “I always wished I had made a movie that Roger liked.”

Ebert’s courage during his illness is part of his legacy. “The term hero gets tossed around far too often,” says Roeper. “But Roger really was heroic. Not just in dealing with all the setbacks he had, but in sharing that with the world, letting people see what he looked like and saying, ‘Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but that’s the reality.'”

Roger Ebert spent his final days in his hospital bed writing, listening to his favorite music on Pandora and visiting with old friends. “I was with him the day before he died,” says Marlene Iglitzen. “He was still feisty, razor sharp.” And when they said goodbye, “We exchanged a sweet ‘thumbshake.'”