Roger Ebert: A Life in the Movies

FROM DECEMBER 2005: He was an eager young man fresh from Urbana when he started reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times more than three decades ago. His intervening years have featured unimagined success, abiding friendships, too much booze (for a time), the death of a colleague, bouts with cancer, and (rather late) lasting love. His passion for film has made Ebert a bigger star than many of the people he writes about.

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Days of Wine and Roses

After work, the gathering place in those days was a bar called O’Rourke’s (on North Avenue, just west of Wells Street), a hangout with the look of a shabby Irish pub. O’Rourke’s had photographs of Brendan Behan and William Butler Yeats on its walls, a coal stove, a polished oak bar, and a sign advertising a boneless chicken dinner for 15 cents (i.e., a hardboiled egg). “We thought of ourselves as bohemians or antiestablishment,” Ebert recalls.

The typical slog went from the newspaper office to Riccardo’s for dinner and drinks, to O’Rourke’s until closing at 2 a.m., then down North Avenue a block to the Old Town Ale House, which stayed open until four. The trek became known as the Bermuda Triangle. “Night after night, year after year, all the time,” says Ebert, whose drinking crew included Zonka, Galloway, and John McHugh, a former Daily News reporter whom Ebert calls his “oldest friend in Chicago.” Although known for being gregarious, Ebert himself admits to a certain shyness, and his colleague Robert Feder, the Sun-Times’s radio and TV columnist, calls him “inherently a shy young man in a great celebrity persona.” But whatever shyness remained was washed away by the alcohol. Sometimes Ebert would interview stars at O’Rourke’s—Jane Russell, John Wayne, Mel Brooks, or Clint Eastwood. Although Ebert’s rules required the stars to be treated like anyone else, one night an O’Rourke’s regular screamed at Charlton Heston, “My God, it’s Moses!” and he cheerfully autographed her bra.

Ebert, who drank Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch, could finish off a bottle by himself. Later, when he worried that he might be drinking too much, he told Galloway that he had his drinking under control—the night before, he had consumed only 15 highballs.

The more Ebert drank, the jollier he became. “He might just start singing or reciting a poem,” recalls Marshall Rosenthal, who was then working as a reporter at the Chicago Daily News. Ebert and McHugh would quote Yeats, sometimes in unison, and Ebert would also compose limericks. When he stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a rumpled carbon copy, the regulars knew that he was about to read them his review for the next day.

Because his social life centered on O’Rourke’s, Ebert met the women he dated there. For two years, he saw a nurse named Sarah Nance, who was divorced and the mother of three children. They talked about marriage, but looking back, Ebert says, he was not “marriageable.” In 1975 at O’Rourke’s, he met Ingrid Eng, an exotically beautiful mother of four. After her divorce, they dated, although not exclusively, well into the next decade. Ebert became close to her children and helped one of her daughters, Monica, get a “copy kid” job at the Sun-Times. Today she is a reporter for the Tribune. “I don’t think I’d be in journalism if it weren’t for him,” she says.

Ebert remembers that they used to call O’Rourke’s “the ultimate singles bar: you’d go there with somebody and go home alone.” Home was a rental apartment cluttered with books and papers in a three-flat at 2437 North Burling Street.

The drinking did not seem to impair Ebert’s writing. He was an alcoholic when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but he never missed a deadline and was never late for an appointment. Still, he was beginning to recognize that it was a dead end, says William Nack, Ebert’s friend since college. Legend had it that one night, home from O’Rourke’s, he threw his bowl of ice cream against the wall. “It was taking over my life,” Ebert recalls today.

By then, he had embarked on the television show with Gene Siskel, and Ebert worried about being hung-over during the tapings, at the time every other week. He would stop drinking two or three days before. In the summer of 1978 he saw a doctor, who recommended Alcoholics Anonymous. Ebert said no, and the doctor told him to come back every month for a year to see how he was doing. “At the end of the year, I hadn’t made any improvement, so he suggested seeing a counselor,” Ebert says. She refused to talk to him unless he went to AA. Ebert will not talk about AA directly or even confirm for publication that he ever belonged to the organization, but friends say that he attended his first meeting in August 1979, and he has been sober ever since.

One woman, who casually dated Ebert, encountered him at an AA meeting the first week of his sobriety. It was a hot day; the door was open, and she glanced out at a Sun-Times delivery truck that had Ebert’s picture plastered on its side and realized that the man in the row in front of her was a cohost of the television show about movies then distributed nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service.

For the gregarious Ebert, AA became another O’Rourke’s, and people he met there have remained his close friends. In the beginning he went to meetings every day, sometimes more than once a day, and he eventually persuaded Paul Galloway to join (today Galloway credits Ebert with saving his life). After meetings they would go out for ice cream. Ebert describes himself as an agnostic, but Father Andrew Greeley, the novelist and columnist, recalls Ebert once saying that “his AA meeting was his Mass.”
 

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