Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic whose famous thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict helped make him the most famous reviewer in America, died Thursday of complications from cancer, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he wrote for 46 years. He was 70.
Ebert had been battling thyroid cancer since 2002, but never gave up his aisle-seat post or his love of cinema, publishing more than 300 reviews last year alone despite his inability to speak without the help of a voice machine due to an operation that removed his lower jaw. On Wednesday, he announced that his cancer had returned and that he would be taking “a leave of presence”. Readers hoped that it was merely another temporary set-back and that Ebert would return to share his trusted opinions. Sadly, it was not to be.
Ebert became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, where he quickly demonstrated his deep knowledge of film history and his appreciation for a new generation of movie stars that were redefining and reinvigorating Hollywood. At that time, movie critics tended to fall into two categories: slightly mothball-scented old timers like Bosley Crowther at The New York Times or hip, intellectual bomb throwers like Pauline Kael. Ebert quickly staked his claim in that fertile middle ground — he was smart but not pretentious. A populist who called ’em like he saw ’em.
Ebert achieved an unlikely national fame when, in 1975, he and Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel launched the PBS show Sneak Previews. That same year, he was also recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Sun-Times (clearly, the Pulitzer committee didn’t hold his screenwriting collaboration with softcore auteur Russ Meyer on 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls against him). Still, it was his on-air exposure that vaulted him to becoming the most famous movie critic in America.
Over the years, the show moved from PBS to syndication with the new name, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and its audience snowballed. Siskel and Ebert became an argumentative tag-team of cinephilia — a movie-mad Mutt & Jeff duo who spread the word on the latest offerings pouring out of Tinseltown while taking jabs at one another and rendering their final judgments with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down as if they were Roman emperors deciding the fate of a fallen gladiator. They even trademarked their signature thumb verdict. Siskel passed away in 1999.
With his owlish glasses, tweedy sports coats, and heavyset frame, Ebert was a unique TV personality, which made it easy to overlook what a gifted writer he was in print. Not only was his column in the Sun-Times a must-read for movie lovers, Ebert also wrote more than a dozen books, including the hysterical I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie series, Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, Awake in the Dark, and Life Itself: A Memoir. Beginning in 1999, he also hosted an annual festival of overlooked films called Ebertfest in Champaign, Ill.
With Ebert’s passing, the movies have lost one of their greatest champions — a man who never lost his passion for staring at a bigger-than-life screen in the hushed dark of the matinee and who never stopped from sharing that passion with the rest of us.