Film Critic Roger Ebert (R) and his wife Chaz arrive at the American Society of Cinematographers 17th Annual Outstanding Achievement Awards at the Century Plaza Hotel on February 16, 2003 in Los Angeles

Film Critic Roger Ebert (R) and his wife Chaz arrive at the American Society of Cinematographers 17th Annual Outstanding Achievement Awards at the Century Plaza Hotel on February 16, 2003 in Los Angeles

*The Chicago’s Sun-Times has announced that film critic Roger Ebert has died at age 70, after just yesterday announcing that his cancer had returned.

Ebert announced on his website Wednesday that he was “taking a leave of presence” due to health issues.

“I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review,” Ebert wrote. “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.”

Ebert also announced that he was purchasing his popular website Rogerebert.com from the Sun-Times’ owners and relaunching the site. Additionally, he planned to launch a Kickstarter campaign to bring “At the Movies” back to TV.

Ebert, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, “was without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic,” the Sun Times reports. He had been in poor health over the past decade, battling cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland.

Roger Ebert attends the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards held in Santa Monica. (February 25, 2012)

Roger Ebert attends the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards held in Santa Monica.
(February 25, 2012)

Per the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune:

He lost part of his lower jaw in 2006, and with it the ability to speak or eat, a calamity that would have driven other men from the public eye. But Ebert refused to hide, instead forging what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers. “No point in denying it,” he wrote, analyzing his medical struggles with characteristic courage, candor and wit, a view that was never tinged with bitterness or self-pity.

Always technically savvy — he was an early investor in Google — Ebert let the Internet be his voice. His rogerebert.com had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 “Person of the Year” from the Webby Awards, which noted that “his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web.” His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers.

Ebert was both widely popular and professionally respected. He not only won a Pulitzer Prize — the first film critic to do so — but his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005, among the movie stars he wrote about so well for so long. His reviews were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide.

The same year Ebert won the Pulitzer — 1975 — he also launched a new kind of television program: “Coming Soon to a Theater Near You” with Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel on WTTW-Channel 11. At first it ran monthly.

The combination worked. The trim, balding Siskel, perfectly balanced the bespectacled, portly Ebert. In 1978, the show, retitled “Sneak Previews,” moved to PBS for national distribution, and the duo was on their way to becoming a fixture in American culture.

Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Urbana on June 18, 1942, the son of Walter and Annabel Ebert. His father was an electrician at the University of Illinois, his mother, a bookkeeper. It was a liberal household — Ebert remembers his parents praying for the success of Harry Truman in the election of 1948. As a child, he published a mimeographed neighborhood newspaper, and a stamp collectors’ newspaper in elementary school.

Ebert went on to the University of Illinois, where he published a weekly journal of politics and opinion as a freshman and served as editor of the Daily Illini his senior year. He graduated in 1964, and studied in South Africa on a Rotary Scholarship. While still in Urbana, he began free-lancing for the Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News.

He was accepted at the University of Chicago, where he planned to earn his doctorate in English (an avid reader, Ebert later used literary authors to help explain films — for example, quoting e.e. cummings several times in his review of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

But Ebert had also written to Herman Kogan, for whom he freelanced at the Daily News, asking for a job, and ended up at the Sun-Times in September of 1966, working part-time. The following April, he was asked to become the newspaper’s film critic when the previous critic, Eleanor Keen, retired.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of "At the Movies"

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of “At the Movies”

Competition between rival newspapers reporters and critics was savage in those days as Siskel, then the Tribune’s movie critic, later recalled, “We intensely disliked each other. We perceived each other as a threat to our well-being.”
But in 1975, Eliot Wald, a producer at the local PBS station, WTTW-Ch. 11, had the idea of pairing Siskel and Ebert on a television show about movies and persuaded them both to give it a shot. Thea Flaum was the executive producer of what was then called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.”
The early shows now appear as crude and unpolished as some of the shows on cable access. But at the time it was refreshing. Here were two men who, in physical appearance and personality, were unlike anything else on the tube.
These were not the typically neatly coiffed and sun-brushed talking heads. And they were not prim and polite; they argued.
Their enthusiasm for and knowledge of movies was palpable, and by providing clips from current releases they were giving viewers a consumer-friendly, witty, intelligent and entertaining package.
Still, few could have predicted either the eventual success of the show or the natural fit of the two personalities; they were uncannily well-matched and early on showed the ability to turn debate into an art.
The show became more popular with each season, taking a new name, “Sneak Previews,” and gaining a national audience when it was syndicated on PBS in 1978 and where it would become for a time the most highly rated show in PBS history. In 1982, the pair signed with Tribune Entertainment and renamed the program “At the Movies.” In 1986 they were lured into the fold of Buena Vista Television, a division of the Walt Disney Co., and changed the show’s name to “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.”
By this time the TV show had made Siskel and Ebert rich and famous. It had also made them the most powerful critics in the world, according to many polls and industry experts, and American pop cultural icons, sometimes referred to as “Sisbert.” They spawned imitators and were firmly embedded in the American celebrity fabric due to frequent appearances on the “Tonight” show, “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Oprah.”
In 1999 Siskel died after a quiet battle against complications that arose after a growth was removed from his brain 10 months earlier. He was only 53-years-old.
“I remember after we first started out,” Ebert recalled at the time, “and we were on a talk show and this old actor Buddy Rogers said to us, `The trouble with you guys is that you have a sibling rivalry.’ We did. He was like a brother, and I loved him that way.”
Gotham Tribute Honoree Roger Ebert and his wife and Chaz Ebert appear onstage at the 17th Annual Gotham Awards presented by IFP (Independent Feature Project) at Steiner Studios November 27, 2007 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City

Gotham Tribute Honoree Roger Ebert and his wife and Chaz Ebert appear onstage at the 17th Annual Gotham Awards presented by IFP (Independent Feature Project) at Steiner Studios November 27, 2007 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City

In 1992 Ebert married, for the first time, at age 40, to attorney Chaz Hammel-Smith (later Chaz Hammelsmith), who was the great romance of his life and his rock in sickness, instrumental in helping Ebert continue his workload as his health declined.

“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,” he wrote.