Roger Ebert, whose sharp comments and strategic position of his thumb came to symbolize movie criticism for more than three decades, died on Thursday in Chicago, his longtime employer the Chicago Sun-Times announced. He was 70.
Though generally upbeat about the state of his health, on Wednesday, his 46th anniversary reviewing movies, Ebert announced that his cancer had returned and that he was taking a “leave of presence” from his blog and film reviewing.
“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital,” he wrote on his blog. “So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.”
From his professional base at the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, Ebert was syndicated to some 200 newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. Millions more knew the staunch Midwesterner (he was born in Urbana, Ill.) from his TV appearances, both on his own show and with guest shots on Tonight and Late Show.
“I don’t think of this as a job,” Ebert told PEOPLE about being a movie critic. “I think of it as a vocation.” Even his home had a full-sized screening room – and a life-sized statue of early screen comic Oliver Hardy.
Having been a longtime bachelor – though seldom without female companionship at movie premieres or film festivals – Ebert married for the first time in 1993, at age 51. His bride, whom he met through friends in 1989, was trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith, who survives him, as do a stepdaughter and two step-grandchildren.
Earlier in his bachelor days, Ebert had also dated fellow Chicagoan Oprah Winfrey, who has credited him with encouraging her to go into syndication.
The Sun-Times critic since 1967, Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, the first time the prestigious award ever went to a film reviewer. The same year as his Pulitzer, he and rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel launched their syndicated TV show Siskel & Ebert at the Moves, featuring their trademark thumbs up or down to indicate their pleasure or displeasure with what they had seen on the big screen.
Siskel died of a brain tumor in February 1999, at age 53. “I miss Gene,” Ebert told PEOPLE shortly afterward. “I’ll see something on the screen and know that if Gene were in this room, I would hear a chuckle – or a snort.”
Lengthy Health Battle
With Richard Roeper as a replacement, the show continued – despite Ebert’s failing health over the past few years. He underwent four cancer surgeries, once in 2002 to remove a malignant tumor on his thyroid gland (as well as lymph nodes in his neck) and twice in 2003 on his salivary gland.
On June 16, 2006 he again had surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his salivary gland, and said at the time that he expected to make a full recovery. He described the tumor as a “slow-growing and persistent cancer. You live with it.” The following month, Ebert was rushed in for emergency surgery, to repair complications from the earlier operation.
As was reported in Esquire magazine’s March 2010 issue, ever since that 2006 procedure Ebert was deprived of speech. His face was also contorted from the loss of his jaw, though by January 2011 he was able to wear a silicone prosthesis for TV appearances.
Throughout, his spirit remained indomitable. On Jan. 24, 2008, Ebert posted a message on his Web site to say he was headed back to the hospital. But he also added, “I plan to return [to work] full-time as soon as possible.” Sure enough, Ebert continued to review movies on his blog, and in September 2010 announced plans to present a TV revival of At the Movies, featuring other critics as well as himself, using his computer voice.
His Own Movie
Besides reviewing movies, Ebert also penned several books, including a cookbook The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker, published in September 2010. He also wrote screenplays – most famously (or infamously) the 1970 20th Century Fox parody Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, for nudie king director Russ Meyer – to which his fellow critics gave a resounding collective thumbs down, though in later years the movie achieved a kind of cult status.
In his well-received 2011 memoir Life Itself, Ebert admitted to his one-time addiction to alcohol (“Without hangovers,” he wrote, “it is possible that I would still be drinking. I would also be unemployed, unmarried and probably dead”), dissected his often-contentious partnership with Siskel (“No sooner had I expressed a verdict then here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me”), and – as someone who was raised Catholic but called an atheist by his own wife – even pondered spirituality.
“I would not want my convictions reduced to a word. Chaz, who has a firm faith, leaves me to my beliefs,” he wrote, later stating, “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am more content with questions than answers.”
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