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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The Second Time Around

When Roger and Chaz were house hunting in the early nineties, Gene Siskel, a maven of real estate, advised them on which house to buy. “They absolutely cared what each other thought,” Chaz says of the two old rivals and colleagues, “more than they cared what anyone else thought about anything.”

Ebert first realized that Siskel was ill in early May 1998. In a limousine en route to the Rosemont Theatre to tape The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Siskel complained of a headache. “I want you to carry the ball,” he told Ebert, “and I’ll just go along with you.”

“He was obviously in terrific pain,” Ebert recalls. Five days later, Siskel had emergency surgery to remove a growth on his brain. Two weeks later, he was on the show by telephone from his hospital bed, then from his apartment. By mid-June he was back at the studio, and he continued to appear there until shortly before his death eight months later. “Roger was magnificent,” says the Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder, a close friend of both men. “Gene’s speech and his performance were affected, but Roger was somehow able to make it work without diminishing him in the process.”

Ebert was at his Michigan house on the Saturday that Siskel died. The show’s executive producer at the time, Stuart Cleland, called and said, “Rog, you’ve lost your friend.” Ebert wrote a tribute for the Sunday paper. “I wept when Gene died,” he says. “And I miss him all the time.”

Richard Schickel, Time magazine’s film critic, was one of many who wondered aloud how Ebert would ever replace Siskel. They had an “X factor” that would make it difficult for Ebert to find a new partner, he said on the PBS show The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. “It’s like Myrna Loy and William Powell or Abbott and Costello. There are some combinations that simply work. And I think that one did.”

Ebert decided to keep the show going, and so began the parade of guest hosts. He ended up auditioning 38 partners, including David Ansen of Newsweek, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, the online critics David Poland and Harry Knowles, and Janet Maslin and Elvis Mitchell, both former critics for The New York Times. Only one person declined the opportunity: Manohla Dargis, currently of The New York Times.

One morning as they were walking on their treadmills and watching the Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper on WFLD’s Fox Thing in the Morning, Chaz suggested that Ebert try him. “But he and I work for the same paper,” Roger protested. “So what?” Chaz replied. Ebert and Roeper were not personal friends.

Roeper, now 46, who writes a column often focused on pop culture, had not sought the job. When the call came, he says today, he thought, “A one-shot deal, [and it] would be a really fun tape to have forever.” When he kept getting asked back, he says, he knew he might be tapped.

“Everyone privately sidled up to me and said, ‘He’s the guy,’” Ebert recalls. “There was an easiness and a rapport and a quickness right out of the starting gate.” Two other finalists stayed in the race: Joyce Kulhawik, an entertainment reporter for WBZ-TV in Boston, and Michaela Pereira of ZDTV’s Internet Tonight, now a morning TV anchor in Los Angeles. Both appeared multiple times, and Buena Vista’s then executive vice president, Mary Kellogg, was in negotiations with Kulhawik. But Ebert insists that Disney executives told him that “it had to be somebody I wanted to work with,” and Roeper was his first choice.

When Roeper’s selection was announced in July 2000, Ebert volunteered that he was partial to selecting a man because he would not feel comfortable beating up on a woman on the air. Given that, critics ask why there are not more sparks. “Richard and I have never really been angry with each other in the last five years,” says Ebert. “Now we go in, we do the show, we have lunch, we plan next week’s show. There’s been five years of peace.”

But not profits, according to several people who claim that the show breaks even at best and is kept going by Disney for reasons of prestige, not profit. “This show doesn’t make us any money,” a Buena Vista executive told Stuart Cleland.

“I assume that if it didn’t make money it wouldn’t be on the air,” says Ebert, who admits that he does not know about profits. He points to the current ratings, at about 2.3 (each rating point equals 1.096 million television households), better than they have been in five years. Still, the long-term decline has been dramatic: in 1987, Buena Vista drew an audience of eight million; in 1999, it claimed 3.3 million.

“Who watches the show?” asks the former Tribune editor Gary Dretzka. “Seven people in Nebraska.” What he means is that the time slots are poor in New York (11 a.m. on Sunday) and in Los Angeles (6:30 p.m. on Sunday). Other cities have even worse times, such as 2 a.m. on Sunday in Cincinnati; even in Chicago, the air times on WLS-TV are not ideal—Saturday at 10:35 p.m. and repeated on Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

Sounding as if he is out hustling advertising, Ebert told this reporter, “We got a 6.5 rating in Detroit. On a recent Sunday night in Boston, we were the top-rated show on that station from sign-on to sign-off.” (According to a Buena Vista spokesman, “There was no instance in the current season where Ebert & Roeper outperformed all other programming during any day in Boston.”) Ebert claims five or six times as many viewers as Fox News’s O’Reilly Factor, consistently the highest-rated of cable’s political screamers. (The spokesman pegs the number at almost two times as many viewers.) Today, Ebert & Roeper airs on 200 stations. Still, not even an optimist like Ebert could claim that the numbers are headed in the right direction.
 

Heaven Can Wait

Lately, when people see Ebert on television, some are alarmed by his appearance. In the past few years, he has dropped about 100 pounds with the assistance of the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa, formerly in Santa Monica—“Chaz took me there the first time kicking and screaming,” Roger says—and by adhering to the 10,000-steps-a-day program. He keeps a pedometer attached to his waistband and works out with a trainer three days a week. Gone is the box of Good & Plenty that he used to eat during screenings—replaced by a Pritikin sandwich and diet peach Snapple. Between movies, he walks around the block.

He is frustrated that people do not believe that the weight loss was deliberate and hard won; that they think it is related to his three bouts with cancer—once thyroid and twice salivary gland. Repeated surgeries in the neck and chin area, affecting the muscles, have caused the left side of his mouth to droop, and some viewers say they wonder if he has had a stroke.

Ebert is certain that he knows the cause of his cancers—radiation for an ear infection when he was a child. (In the 1950s, radiation was used on children to treat such common conditions as acne, dandruff, and tonsillitis.) In December 2003, when he had his second bout of salivary gland cancer, he went, for a month, to a state-of-the-art neutron radiation facility at the University of Washington in Seattle. His radiologist told him that the dose he was getting was 1 percent as strong as what he had received as a child. Side effects of the treatment included an inability to eat solid food for four months (he lived on Ensure Plus), fatigue, insomnia—he read all of Willa Cather’s novels during his wakeful periods—dry mouth, a numb tongue, and a hoarse voice. “I never missed a single show or a single review,” he says proudly, explaining that he watched movies in Seattle and wrote from his hotel suite.

In March 2004, Nancy De Los Santos, his freelance field producer for the Academy Awards, was impressed that Ebert continued to cover the event, although after the red carpet segment she joined him and Chaz in their hotel suite, where they watched the show on television. “I did wonder then why he needed to do it,” De Los Santos says, “and maybe it was to prove to himself that he was OK.”

By the time of the 2005 Oscars, she found herself with him “running down Hollywood Boulevard at 10:15 at night, trying to find our cameraman.” They had to be live in Chicago by 10:25. “He was right there with me.” Celebrities in their gowns and tuxedos stared at them, De Los Santos recalls, asking, “Isn’t that Roger Ebert?”

An MRI shows no sign of cancer “at the present moment,” Ebert says. But he knows from experience that salivary gland cancer, slow growing and generally not lethal, could come back.

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