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Roger Ebert Biography: Lovable Movie Critic is Dead at 70

Roger Ebert photo, looking stern while sitting in red velvet movie chair

Roger Ebert is dead at age 70.

And we still weren’t over Gene Siskel‘s death.

Roger Ebert’s passing is a shock and a surprise. Just two days ago he said in a blog post that he was taking a “leave of presence” to deal with a recurrence of cancer, but he gave no hint that the end was near.  Quite the opposite:

I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers hand-picked and greatly admired by me.

That doesn’t sound like a man who thinks death is imminent. He said of his health:

The immediate reason for my “leave of presence” is my health. The “painful fracture” that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to.
He didn’t elaborate on the cancer, but did elaborate on this plans for the future:
At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. 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.

Well, heck. It would have been great to see those essays and those reviews. His writing the last few years, about his (many) illnesses and his facial disfigurement, has been just plain amazing.

Roger Ebert (left) and Gene Siskel and their thumbs.

It was really the fourth or fifth chapter in Ebert’s life. First he was the plucky, even arrogant young movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Then he was the TV star, dueling with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel in a series of shows called everything from At the Movies to Coming Soon to a Theater Near You.

The constant in every show was the thumbs: thumbs up for a good movie, thumbs down for a lemon. They trademarked the concept, at least for use in movie criticism. It’s no surprise Ebert’s is the thumb pointing down in this photo — Siskel was always a little sunnier and more mainstream, Ebert a bit more of the enfant terrible in their early days.

Here they are way back in 1976 reviewing Martin Scorsese‘s landmark film Taxi Driver. Ebert loves it; Siskel (who does most of the talking) thinks the violence crosses a line.

Roger Ebert later wrote a book about Scorsese… and Scorsese, in turn, just announced plans to produce a documentary about Ebert, to be based on the reviewer’s 2011 memoir Life Itself.  No word what, if anything, Ebert’s death will do to that project.

Gene Siskel died in 1999 of a brain tumor at the young age of 54. Ebert tried to keep the show going with a series of other reviewers, but it never quite had the same crackle. Like Laurel and Hardy, he and Siskel were two of a kind. Still, Ebert turned into a mentor and opportunity-maker for young film critics.

Then he had his health troubles, starting with cancer in 2002 and a recurrence in 2006, which led to removal of part of his jaw.  He stuck it out all with good humor and became an Internet maven, being named Person of the Year in the 2010 Webby Awards.  He wrote, posted and tweeted with the best of them, and with more compassion and insight than most of them.

What I’ll miss most about Roger Ebert is simply how trustworthy his reviews were. He seemed to be on the same wavelength with me: if he liked it, I usually did too, and vice-versa. A lot of other people felt the same way, obviously.

 The New York Times has a nice sendoff in its obituary:

Mr. Ebert — who said he saw 500 films a year and reviewed half of them — was once asked what movie he thought was shown over and over again in heaven, and what snack would be free of charge and calorie-free there.
“‘Citizen Kane’ and vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream,” he answered.
So long, Mr. Ebert, and thanks for all the great reviews.

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