Film Critic Roger Ebert Dead at 70

By Carol Marin, Don Moseley and Jon Schuppe
|  Monday, Jul 8, 2013  |  Updated 3:55 PM EDT
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Roger Ebert's four-star life began June 18, 1942 in Urbana, Ill. Few people have had more impact on the film industry than the Pulitzer Prize winning critic. Carol Marin reports.

Roger Ebert's four-star life began June 18, 1942 in Urbana, Ill. Few people have had more impact on the film industry than the Pulitzer Prize winning critic. Carol Marin reports.

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Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and television personality who invented the  thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviewing style, died Thursday after a years-long battle with cancer. He was 70.

Ebert's death, first reported by the Sun-Times, came two days after he marked his 46th anniversary of becoming the newspaper's movie reviewer with a note on his website in which he vowed to keep working through a recurrence of cancer.

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He leaves behind a wife, Chaz Hammelsmith, along with millions of fans who devoured his newspaper reviews, watched his groundbreaking television show and followed his blog.

To many of those fans, he'll be the guy who shared their love of movies, and helped them understand how they could enrich their lives.

"If it's a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more what it's like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class," Ebert once told an audience in 2005, according to NPR. "It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that to me is the most noble thing that good movies can do—and it's a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them."

An indefatigable worker and unabashed fan of the movie business, Ebert lost part of his jaw to cancer in 2006. The surgery left him unable to speak or eat, but he never stopped writing. His 2011 autobiography, "Life Itself," one of 17 books he wrote, earned widespread praise, and is now being made into a documentary by his friend Martin Scorcese.

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Ebert was hospitalized last fall with a broken hip, which his wife tweeted was caused by "tricky disco dance moves." Last May, he unveiled plans to reinvent "Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies" on PBS, and Tuesday he said he planned to launch a fund-raising campaign via Kickstarter. 

Roger Ebert was born on June 18, 1942 in Urbana, Ill., where he also saw his first movie, the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races." As a child, he wrote and published the Washington Street News, which he delivered to his neighbors. He continued his journalism pursuits in high school and at the University of Illinois, where he edited the student newspaper.

Ebert joined the Chicago Sun-Times in 1966. After six months as a part-timer, the paper's film critic retired, and an editor told him the job was his.

“I didn’t know the job was open until the day I was given it,” Mr. Ebert recalled later, according to the Sun-Times. “I had no idea. Bob Zonka, the features editor, called me into the conference room and said, ‘We’re gonna make you the movie critic.’ It fell out of the sky.”

Reviewing movies back then was not considered serious journalism. But Ebert's career coincided with a dynamic era in American film-making, as old Hollywood conventions fell away and edgy, creative narratives burst forth. Ebert chronicled the evolution. He also wrote two screenplays for B-movie "sexploitation" director Russ Meyer.

He worked on other scripts until his editor demanded he choose between screenwriting and newspaper writing, according to the Sun-Times.

He chose the latter.

"My newspaper job is my identity," he later said, according to the Sun-Times.

In some years he wrote nearly 300 reviews.

In 1975, Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize, making him the first film critic to win journalism’s most coveted award.

Soon afterward, Ebert joined his rival at the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel, on a public television criticism program called "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You." The name was changed to "Sneak Previews" in 1978, and it reached national syndication. At the program's height, it was seen in 180 public television markets and was, according to Television Week, "the highest-rated entertainment show in the history of public broadcasting." The show coined the terms "thumbs up" and "thumbs down," to sum up the reviews.

Siskel and Ebert fought and argued like brothers. It was part of their charm, and got them parodied on "Saturday Night Live." But when Siskel died of cancer in 1999, Ebert wept. "I miss him all the time," he said.

The program continued with Richard Roeper, but like any good film, an unexpected twist was about to occur: Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid and salivary gland cancer.

A 2006 operation left him speechless, and a portion of his chin was removed.

Undaunted, Ebert never shrank from public view, often accompanied by his wife, Chaz. He continued to act as a champion of good movies, and an enemy of bad ones. He also devoted a film festival to movies he thought were under-appreciated classics.

He continued to write. He embraced the Internet, starting a blog, and gathering more than 800,000 followers on Twitter.

For more than five decades, Ebert’s reviews were weekly reading in as many as 250 papers across the country.

He earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, ensuring his memory among the legends he wrote about.

Now, as Roger Ebert might say, the script is complete.

In addition to his wife, Ebert is survived by a step-daughter and two step-grandchildren, the Sun-Times reported.

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