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The movie critic Roger Ebert has often said he would never leave his cherished Chicago Sun-Times or his beloved city. Yet, in 1968, he was ready to do just that. In a letter to his mentor Daniel Curley, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the young newspaperman confided that The New York Times wanted him to travel east to talk about becoming its second-string drama and movie critic. Ebert complained that his military draft status would preclude such a career move. “If The New York Times summons one only once in a lifetime, then I blew it,” he wrote. But something else Ebert revealed in the letter suggests his state of mind at the time. “I continue to write about the movies,” he noted. “I think a lifetime of such work would make [one] a moron.”
Today, at 63, Ebert still writes about movies for the Sun-Times, and hardly anyone would call him a moron (well, maybe he would hear that from Rob Schneider, who speculated that one of the reasons Ebert had panned his Deuce Bigalow movies was that the critic had “never had sex in high school”). Rather, a lifetime of reviewing movies has made Ebert a number of other notable things.
He’s rich—a multimillionaire whose latest contract is said to give him $3 million from his syndicated TV show. At the Sun-Times alone, he makes $500,000 a year.
He’s famous—“more recognizable than most of the movie stars he writes about,” says the Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, his current TV partner. “I’ve seen him walk into Hollywood parties, and the stars are turning toward him.”
And his opinions carry enormous influence in the world of movies. He long ago transcended his newspaper. In Hollywood, nervous studio executives ask, “‘What did The New York Times say?’ ‘What did USA Today say?’ ‘What did Ebert say?’” It is not even a question any longer, says Michael Cooke, formerly of the Sun-Times and now the top editor of the New York Daily News, of how good or bad he is as a critic. “He’s a brand, like Coke.”
Remarkably, working in journalism and Hollywood—two businesses not known for their generosity of spirit—Ebert has attained this success for the most part without making enemies. Although some people do question the quality of his reviews, it is hard for a diligent reporter to turn up anyone who has a bad word to say about him personally, even in private. Rather, acquaintances cite his loyalty, his sweetness, his benevolence—and, of course, his vast store of knowledge and enthusiasm about movies and myriad other subjects.
The road to becoming the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize (1975) and the first to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (last summer) was paved with Ebert’s hard work, his ability to write at typing speed, and his unflagging optimism and cheer, even in the face of obstacles: his father’s death when Ebert was a freshman in college; a serious drinking problem; the writing of a ridiculed soft-porn screenplay; the death from brain cancer of his close professional colleague, Gene Siskel; his own repeated bouts with cancer. It’s a life worth its own screenplay-the tale of a movie-obsessed boy from central Illinois who made very good.
While still an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Roger Ebert had his eye on big-city journalism; he was selling freelance stories to both the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times. In September 1966, James Hoge, then the city editor of the Sun-Times, took him to lunch at Riccardo’s on Rush Street, the ersatz commissary for the city’s newspapers, and hired him as a writer for Midwest, the Sun-Times’s Sunday magazine. (Ebert continued pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago for another year before finally quitting.)
It was a lively time to work at the tabloid, the sister publication of the high-toned afternoon broadsheet, the Chicago Daily News. “We were like the steelworking sons who work so we can send our bright brother to college,” says Paul Galloway, another Sun-Times reporter. Looking for young readers and hoping to inject personality into his paper, Hoge also hired Bob Greene, Ron Powers, and Roger Simon; all of them went on to wide recognition as writers.
As the features editor, Robert Zonka nurtured the bunch. Fourteen years Ebert’s senior, Zonka was a charismatic teddy bear who loved to party and drink and recognized a soul mate in Ebert. When the paper’s film critic, Eleanor Keene, a former society reporter, retired in April 1967, Hoge and Zonka asked Ebert to take her beat. He grabbed the chance to cover what he later described as the greatest art form of the 20th century.
His timing was perfect. At The New Yorker, Pauline Kael had just started “to blow the library dust off writing about films,” recalls David Elliott, then the critic at the Chicago Daily News. The city had four newspapers in those days, each with its own film critic—Ebert; Elliott (now at the San Diego Union-Tribune); Mary Knoblauch at Chicago Today; and Gene Siskel, a rookie reporter who had maneuvered his way into the job at the Tribune. The most intense competition was between Ebert and Siskel, who, Ebert says, was hired “to knock me off.”
“Before the late sixties, when we all came along,” recalls Knoblauch, movie criticism was in the hands of “old fogies,” who wrote as if they worked for the studios’ publicity offices. The social sea changes of the 1960s and 1970s brought with them what Ebert calls “the film generation moment.” Doris Day comedies and Rock Hudson romantic dramas gave way to Easy Rider, Last Tango in Paris, and Bonnie and Clyde. Attending his first New York Film Festival in 1967, Ebert met Kael, and afterward he sent her some of his columns. She called them “the best film criticism being done in American newspapers today,” he says. A few years later, he took Knoblauch to meet Kael at her apartment, where they sat around the kitchen table talking about movies. “People always liked Roger because he knew so much,” says Knoblauch.
The remarkable ease with which he wrote also caught the eye—and the ire—of his colleagues. The public-relations consultant Connie Zonka, then married to Bob, recalls Ebert strolling in on Thursday evenings, a half-hour before deadline for the Sunday paper, while the theatre and music critics sat agonizing over their copy. “Roger would walk around, tell some really terrible jokes, sit down at his typewriter, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding—and he finished his piece.”
Photograph: Anna Knott