Roger Ebert, the nation’s best-known film reviewer who with fellow critic Gene Siskel created the template for succinct thumbs-up or thumbs-down movie reviews, died Thursday. He was 70.
Ebert, a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, also was the first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for movie criticism. He died Thursday at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, his office said.
Only a day earlier, Ebert announced that he was undergoing radiation treatment after a recurrence of cancer.
“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.” Ebert wrote on his blog.
He had no grand theories or special agendas, but millions recognized the chatty, heavy-set man with wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Above all, they followed his thumb — pointing up or down. It was the main logo of the televised shows Ebert co-hosted, first with Siskel of the rival Chicago Tribune and — after Siskel’s death in 1999 — with his Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper.
Although criticized as gimmicky and simplistic, a “two thumbs-up” accolade was sure to find its way into the advertising for the movie in question.
On the air, Ebert and Siskel bickered like an old married couple and openly needled each other. To viewers who had trouble telling them apart, Ebert was known as the fat one with glasses, Siskel as the thin, bald one.
Despite his power with the movie-going public, Ebert considered himself “beneath everything else a fan.”
“I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind,” Ebert wrote in his 2011 memoir, “Life Itself.”
He was teased for years about his weight, but the jokes stopped abruptly when Ebert lost portions of his jaw and the ability to speak, eat and drink after cancer surgeries in 2006. He overcame his health problems to resume writing full time and eventually even returned to television. In addition to his work for the Sun-Times, Ebert became a prolific user of social media, connecting with fans on Facebook and Twitter.
In early 2011, Ebert launched a new show, “Ebert Presents At the Movies.” It had new hosts but featured Ebert in his own segment, “Roger’s Office.” He used a chin prosthesis and enlisted voice-over guests to read his reviews.
Ebert joined the Sun-Times part time in 1966 while pursuing graduate study at the University of Chicago and got the reviewing job the following year. His reviews eventually were syndicated to several hundred other newspapers, collected in books and repeated on innumerable websites, which would have made him one of the most-influential film critics in the nation even without his television fame.
His 1975 Pulitzer for distinguished criticism was the first, and one of only three, given to a film reviewer since the category was created in 1970. In 2005, he received another honor when he became the first critic to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ebert’s breezy and quotable style, as well as his knowledge of film technique and the business side of the industry, made him an almost instant success.
He soon began doing interviews and profiles of notable actors and directors in addition to his film reviews — celebrating such legends as Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and offering words of encouragement for then-newcomer Martin Scorsese.
In 1969, he took a leave of absence from the Sun-Times to write the screenplay for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The movie got an “X” rating and became somewhat of a cult film.
Ebert’s television career began the year he won the Pulitzer, first on WTTW-TV, the Chicago PBS station, then nationwide on PBS and later on several commercial syndication services. Ebert and Siskel even trademarked the “two thumbs-up” phrase.
And though the pair may have sparred on air, they were close off camera. Siskel’s daughters were flower girls when Ebert married his wife, Chaz, in 1992.