Film critic Roger Ebert was not only the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, but one of the only critics known to the general public, thanks to his long-running movie review shows such as “Sneak Previews” and his thumbs-up or down movie reviews. He died Thursday in Chicago of complications from cancer, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. He was 70.
The avuncular champion of movies big and small had been fighting thyroid cancer since 2002, and in the past few years spoke with a voice machine. The latest show to bear his name is the PBS series “Roger Ebert Presents at the Movies,” in which he briefly appears on camera with a prosthetic chin though other critics shoulder reviewing duties.
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He appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2010, speaking with a machine that tailored his speech more closely to his natural voice.
He continued reviewing films and kept in the public eye writing on his popular website and tweeting frequently.
Ebert is generally seen as a champion of filmmakers and under-appreciated films, a fair reviewer with a dry wit and occasional quirks who wouldn’t hesitate to sock it to films he considered below par, but never in a mean or vindictive way. At times he reviewed films in the form of stories, poems or songs, just to mix it up.
Ebert became the Chicago-Sun Times film critic in 1967, just a year after he joined the paper as a features writer. He wrote in Variety in 2007, “Film criticism in those days was moving from the age of (Bosley) Crowther to the age of (Pauline) Kael. Junkets and sound bites and protective publicists were not so universal, and I was able to spend a lot of time with interview subjects, who would, in such cases as Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Groucho Marx and Robert Altman, say anything, literally anything, and not care if you quoted them.”
VIDEO: Roger Ebert Through the Years
When Ebert and Gene Siskel helped launch “Sneak Previews” in 1975, it was the first TV show offering film reviews. The various incarnations of the program would go on to be Emmy nommed seven times. His Pulitzer Prize came in 1975 for his Sun-Times reviews during 1974.
Born in Urbana, Ill., he started writing sports for the local paper and articles for sci fi fanzines while still in high school. He graduated the U. of Ill. at Urbana-Champaign, where he was editor of the paper and contributed reviews for films including “La Dolce Vita” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he called “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.”
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Ebert also knew about the inside of the movie business, having teamed with sexploitation helmer Russ Meyer to write “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.”
“Sneak Previews” started out on Chicago public broadcasting station WTTW and went national in 1978. In 1982, the pair moved to a syndicated commercial show called “At the Movies With Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert,” and then created “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies” in 1986 with Buena Vista Television. After Siskel died in 1999, the show was renamed “Roger Ebert & the Movies,” and then “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper” when fellow Chicago Sun-times columnist Richard Roeper joined as co-host. Ebert last appeared on “Ebert & Roeper & the Movies” in 2006, when complications from his operations left him unable to speak.
A range of guest hosts filled in, from the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and New York Magazine’s David Edelstein to director Kevin Smith and blogger Kim Morgan.
But Ebert and Disney-ABC wrangled over the value of the “thumbs up, thumbs down” feature, which is a registered trademark owned by Ebert and the estate of the late Gene Siskel.
Though Ebert bemoaned the loss of local newspaper film critics, he was quick to embrace the Internet, finding his website the ideal place to communicate with fellow film geeks, and even more empowering once he lost his voice and amassed nearly a million Twitter followers. “Moviegoers these days know so much more about the movies, in every respect, than they did years ago,” he wrote in Variety.
After growing up with films made by Federico Fellini and Orson Welles (he named “Citizen Kane” the most important film ever made, if not “the best”), he ignited controversy when he said videogames would never equal film with their storytelling or artistry.
“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art,” he wrote on his site after the release of the videogame film “Doom.”
A critic of the film ratings system, he objected to an R rating for the violent “Passion of the Christ” and misuse of the NC-17 rating.
He wrote more than 15 books on subjects from Martin Scorsese to London and rice cookers, including “Awake in the Dark” and “Your Movie Sucks,” a collection of his negative reviews. Since 1999 he has hosted Ebertfest, featuring overlooked films, in Champaign, Ill.
Ebert married Chaz Hammelsmith in 1992. The former attorney took over his business operations, served as a producer on his TV show and traveled to the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 to take over Ebert’s tradition of filing interviews with festival filmmakers.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a step-daughter and two step-grandchildren.