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
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.”
A Star Is Born
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, an adored only child in a modest house in Urbana, Illinois, Roger Ebert enjoyed a childhood that seemed lifted from the pages of
The Saturday Evening Post—the rare dinners out at Steak n Shake; elementary school at St. Mary’s; serving as an altar boy; secondary school at Urbana High, his parents’ alma mater. Television came late to Urbana, and Ebert instead found newspapers and books; he calls the latter his “lifelong consolation.”
Neither of his parents had gone to college, but they both encouraged their son’s bookishness. His father, Walter, worked at the university as an electrician. He was determined that Roger not follow him into his trade: “I was over at the English building working today,” Walter told his son, “and I saw the professors with their feet up on their desks, smoking their pipes and reading their books. Boy, that’s the job for you.” His mother, Annabel, grew up on a farm and worked most of her life as a bookkeeper. She was tiny and always wore a suit or a dress.
As a boy, Ebert was especially close to his mother’s sister, Martha, a nurse who never married and who loved movies. He remembers her taking him to see such adult fare as
A Star Is Born and I Want to Live. Ebert grew to resemble Martha so strongly that, his friend Sally Sinden says, “if you put a V-neck sweater on her and gave her a short haircut and a pair of round glasses,” they would have looked exactly alike.
In grade school Roger published the
Washington Street News, named for the street where he lived; in high school he published a science fiction fanzine and was the editor in chief of the school newspaper and the president of his senior class. He had become enamored with the novelist Thomas Wolfe and wanted to go to Harvard as Wolfe had, but his father said the family could not afford it. “You just thank your lucky stars that you were born in Urbana,” Walter told him, “because if you were born in Bloomington, you’d be going to Normal [now Illinois State University].”
Staying home and going to the University of Illinois meant that Ebert could continue to make extra money—less than a dollar an hour—at
The News-Gazette in Champaign, where, during high school, he had held a job as a bylined reporter working 25 to 30 hours a week. “They hired you to turn out lots of copy real fast,” Ebert recalls.
Shortly before Walter Ebert, a smoker, died of lung cancer in 1960, Roger—still a high-school senior—beat out adults by winning first place in the Illinois Associated Press sportswriting contest. His father, Ebert says, knew that his son was on his way. “I’ve never seen anybody grow up as fast as he did when his father died,” recalls Betsy Hendrick, who worked with Ebert on
The News-Gazette. He also started to gain weight.
Ebert continued to work at
The News-Gazette, but in the end he hitched his star to The Daily Illini, becoming a general columnist, then night editor, news editor, and editor in chief his senior year, 1963-64. His colleagues remember in near reverential terms the paper that Ebert put out after John Kennedy’s assassination. William Nack, the sports editor under Ebert, says that a veteran journalist “could not have put out a better paper.”
After college, Ebert applied to become an intern to James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief of
The New York Times. In a letter of rejection, Reston, himself a graduate of the University of Illinois, wrote, “I have decided . . . to hire a young man from Harvard.” Pulp Fiction
The Wall Street Journal published a letter from Ebert praising the director Russ Meyer, whose soft-porn movies— Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, for example—were widely held in low regard. The men became friends. Always looking for lively talent, Meyer talked to Ebert about writing the script for his next movie. Ebert, then 26, did not accept the offer. Besides, he wrote Dan Curley, he had qualms about working with “the king of the nudies. . . . It would be unwise to get mixed up with movies at that level.”
In January 1969, Ebert had failed his physical for the draft (at 206 pounds he was nine pounds overweight) and kept reviewing. The next month, without disclosing their friendship, Ebert gave Meyer’s movie
Vixen three stars and called Meyer the “skin flick” genre’s “only artist.”
Several months later, when Meyer was signed to make his first major studio film, Ebert accepted a $15,000 offer to write the script for
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, about a female rock-‘n’-roll band struggling to make it in Hollywood. He took a leave from the Sun-Times and moved to Hollywood.
Connie Zonka has a frank explanation for Ebert’s attraction to Meyer, who died last year, and his movies: “Roger was crazy about women with big tits,” she says, “and Russ Meyer filmed women with big tits.” Every morning Meyer would pick Ebert up at the Sunset Marquis and drive him to the 20th Century Fox lot, where he was expected to write nonstop. “When Russ didn’t hear the typewriter, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter?’” Ebert recalls. “Russ seemed to believe that typing and writing were the same thing.” Meyer’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, wrote in
Big Bosoms and Square Jaws that Ebert required “good booze and good food . . . [and] at the end of the week he would have to have a girl with outrageous proportions.” McDonough claims that Meyer clamped down on the trysts until the script was completed. Ebert finished it in six weeks. (In the book, Ebert contends, “I did not require a girl at the end of every week, nor, for that matter, did I get one.”)
Later, writing in the highbrow magazine
Film Comment, Ebert claimed that the X-rated Dolls, which was released in 1970, was “a satire of Hollywood conventions.” His colleagues were not impressed: “A cesspool on film,” wrote Gene Siskel (Ebert recalls that Meyer “offered to throw Gene out of [a] hotel window”). Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic’s critic and a man whom Ebert admired, called it “utter garbage.”
Ebert’s friends claim that he shrugged off the bad reviews, but, according to McDonough, he was feeling rejected until Meyer came to Chicago with Edy Williams, who was both his third wife and the movie’s star. They took Ebert to the Roosevelt Theater in the Loop, “where the trio watched the picture with a live audience. When the crowd went wild, Roger felt redeemed.”
Today, Ebert calls
Dolls a “cult classic” and boasts that it has been shown at Oxford and Harvard. He claims that every time he goes to the Sundance Film Festival, some director praises the movie. Mary Knoblauch, though, says she suspects that Ebert regrets having written it.
Jim Hoge told Ebert that he had to choose between reviewing movies and writing them, and he chose reviewing. Still, between 1974 and 1979, Ebert contributed to five more Meyer projects; only one,
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, which Ebert says he wrote in five days, was ever produced. He later told an interviewer for Playboy, “I don’t believe that a film critic has any business having his screenplays on the desks at the studios.” Today, he clarifies: those five projects were all done as independents, without studio backing. He did explore one more big-studio production, however. In 1978, he worked on what he and Meyer hoped would be a 20th Century Fox feature about the band the Sex Pistols. The band’s manager, who was to be the movie’s producer, had seen Dolls 150 times, and Ebert and Meyer went to London to meet the Sex Pistols’ stars, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “They actually started shooting on that movie,” Ebert recalls, “before the Sex Pistols management went broke and the plug was pulled.”
The Odd Couple
The idea for the show that would make Ebert and Siskel rich and famous came from the late Eliot Wald, at the time a producer at public television’s WTTW. But another producer there, Thea Flaum, made the program work. She insisted on pairing the fiercely competitive critics at the two morning papers, even though they could not stand each other. Ebert later told the Tribune’s Rick Kogan, “I think each of us initially said yes because we didn’t want the other guy to do it first.” Siskel was already reviewing movies for WBBM-TV, and Ebert had done a 20-part introduction to the films of Ingmar Bergman for WTTW and had just won the Pulitzer.
Opening Soon at a Theater Near You first aired in September 1975. The title changed as the pair moved from WTTW to PBS to Tribune Entertainment to Buena Vista Television, a division of Disney, but the idea remained the same: two newspaper critics, one fat, one bald, dressed in casual clothes, talking, often arguing, about the movies. There were no celebrity interviews, no gossip, no visits to movie sets. “The great thing about these two guys was, it wasn’t an act,” says Harvey Weinstein, who with his brother headed Miramax, also owned by Disney. “When they disagreed, they sure did disagree, and they were both incredibly opinionated and strong-willed. But the thing they both had in common was, they were champions of movies.”
At the beginning, that was about all they had in common. Ebert was convivial; Siskel, private. Siskel loved sports; Ebert, says one friend, could not name three professional athletes unless they had appeared in movies. Ebert was an intellectual about movies; Siskel, a brilliant reporter, especially in analyzing the economics of the industry. Ebert was a lightning-fast writer who, says Larry Dieckhaus, one of Flaum’s many successors, “would go back and maybe make a comma change; Gene would sit there and sweat blood.” Ebert was competitive, but mildly so compared with Siskel, who, says Marshall Rosenthal, Siskel’s producer at WBBM-TV, “was probably the most competitive guy I ever knew.” Ebert traveled to film festivals and watched movies from morning until night. “Movies were Roger’s lifeblood,” says Gary Dretzka, a former editor at the
Tribune. Siskel soon had a wife and children and preferred to stay home with them. Siskel was the more skillful debater, the better wisecracker; Ebert had more tender feelings.
Flaum insisted on a set with a balcony; her stars sometimes had their backs to the camera as they looked at the film clips, which, all agree, were central to the show’s success. She forbade them to wear ties; sometimes she would take them shopping. She demanded a simple yes or no response to each film; for the first year, she also refused to let Ebert include the small and subtitled films he championed. “We had to get viewers to trust us—that we weren’t going to be public television, off in the stratosphere discussing a foreign film that they didn’t care about,” she says. (Once the show was established, Flaum relented on the egghead films.) She also decreed that a trained canine, Spot the Wonderdog, later Daisy and Sparky, would jump onto the balcony to introduce the Dog of the Week. The dog sent the message, says Flaum, “that we weren’t discussing the cinema; we were talking about the movies.”
By the end of the first season, Ebert and Siskel were on more than 100 public television stations. In 1978 the show, renamed
Sneak Previews, moved to PBS. It aired in 180 markets and was, according to Television Week, “the highest-rated entertainment show in the history of public broadcasting.” Stations in New York and Los Angeles picked it up, which put an end to the question “Who are these Midwest bumpkins to talk to us about film?”
PBS decided to cash in by syndicating it commercially, Ebert says, but “they wanted to continue to pay us PBS salaries.” At WTTW they had been making in the lower three figures per show. They ended their time at PBS making about $87,000 each per season, with no share of the profits. By then they were both represented by the same lawyer and agent, Don Ephraim, reducing the chances for a split. Ebert recalls Siskel warning, “If we have separate agents, it’ll end in bloodshed.”
Ephraim thought he had a done deal with WTTW/PBS when the network hired a Hollywood lawyer who presented an unacceptable deal and told Ephraim his clients could “take it or leave it.” He took the show to Joe Antelo, an executive with what became the Tribune Entertainment Company. Antelo eventually offered each of them $125,000 plus 10 percent of the show’s profits. He sold the deal to his boss by arguing that the clips cost nothing—the studios happily gave them for free—and Ebert and Siskel starred in and wrote the show themselves. For the first 13-week cycle, Antelo signed 87 stations and quickly sold out the advertising. The next cycle he more than doubled the number of stations. Six months later, he says, it was a major hit. That year, 1982, with the show’s name changed to
At the Movies, Antelo recalls, Ebert and Siskel made half a million dollars each.
Four years later, in 1986, they were ready to renew with Tribune Entertainment, but the man who was supposed to handle the details let the matter slide. “It was a big boo-boo,” says Antelo. Jamie Bennett, a former WBBM-TV executive who had moved to Disney’s Buena Vista, offered the pair $1 million each, twice what they were getting at Tribune Entertainment.
Siskel & Ebert & the Movies became Buena Vista’s first syndicated show. Along with the name change came the switch to thumbs up and thumbs down, an idea that Ebert claims as his own.
Tribune retaliated against Siskel, charging that it was a conflict of interest for him to work for Disney when the company also made movies that he would review. Ebert lobbied the Sun-Times’s editor to hire Siskel, and the paper made him an offer. “I don’t think Gene would ever have come to the Sun-Times. I think he just used that as leverage,” Ebert says. In the end, Siskel lost his movie critic’s title, kept a tie to the Tribune as a high-priced freelancer, and picked up other, more lucrative work, such as appearing regularly on CBS This Morning.
The two men really did disagree with each other. “There’s a line you don’t want to cross,” Flaum explains. “People are uncomfortable watching real enmity, real hostility, real anger. Every once in a while I’d say, ‘You know what? That was unpleasant. Let’s do it again with a little less heat.’”
As their careers blossomed, their economic interests converged, and they realized they needed each other. The hostility became more feigned than real. “It was just sport,” says Larry Dieckhaus. “They were like people fencing or sparring; they actually enjoyed it.”
While they would never be the sort of friends who would hang out at each other’s houses, Ebert says, “I loved him, and there were times when I hated him. There were times when he infuriated me, yet we were good friends.”
In the early 1980s, Katharine Graham, the owner of
The Washington Post and a movie buff, summoned Ebert to her office. “Now, I just want to know one thing,” she asked him. “Do you like the movies? Because the critic we have now, he doesn’t seem to like them very much.” She told Ebert that she didn’t care if he continued to live in Chicago as long as he was a presence at Washington cocktail parties and openings. He said no, just as he did to several other papers, including the Tribune. Mary Knoblauch, by then an editor there, says that she was asked more than once to approach him.
Ebert cherishes the
Sun-Times. “No matter who owned it, no matter who dragged it in the gutter, savaged it, ravaged it,” says John McHugh, “Roger always believed that the Sun-Times was the best paper in Chicago.” Friends say he loves it for its underdog status, its gritty, urban, workingman feel. When Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in late 1983, Ebert calmed colleagues who said they could not work for the media mogul: “It’s my paper,” he told them. “He only owns it.” The current Sun-Times editor, John Barron, calls Ebert “our best-known asset, the guy who really helps us to sell newspapers.”
The bar at the top of the paper’s Web site has the usual tabs for news, sports, and business, but it also has a tab marked “Ebert,” which, since October 2004, has taken the browser to Ebert’s own Web site,
rogerebert.com. It carries all his reviews and other writing dating back to 1967. “It’s my archive, my life’s work,” he says.
John McHugh liked to argue that Ebert had wasted himself on the movies and that he was born to be a serious political writer in the mold of a Walter Lippmann. But the
Sun-Times has also served as a soapbox for Ebert’s liberal opinions—against his paper’s endorsement of George W. Bush in 2000, for example. At what other paper does the film critic get to offer political or social commentary whenever he feels like it? “Everything gets in,” says Barron. “He has never been turned down on anything.”
Ebert’s unwavering liberalism defines him as much as his opinions on film. He comes by his politics naturally. Both of his parents were Democrats—his father was a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At the University of Illinois, Ebert was almost passed over for the top job on
The Daily Illini because some members of the board feared he was a radical. (He was a member of SDS—Students for a Democratic Society—but “before they started making bombs,” he says.)
Ebert’s sympathies are so strong, and his position at the paper so secure, that in the fall of 2004, when the Chicago Newspaper Guild reached an impasse with management, he wrote an open e-mail to the publisher, John Cruickshank, pledging to walk out with his colleagues if a new agreement was not struck. Ebert explained to a reporter that his father would haunt him if he ever crossed a picket line.
In an e-mail back, the paper’s former chief executive, Conrad Black—who by then had been removed from his position because of alleged financial shenanigans—chided Ebert for his “proletarian posturing” while hauling in more than $500,000 a year in salary. Black made sure that the
Tribune saw a copy of the e-mail. Ebert countered, “For years my reviews and other writings have represented more than half the total hits on the Sun-Times Web site.”
Today, Ebert does not have much bad to say about Black (“more of a Tory than he was an American right winger”) or about the former publisher David Radler (“a charming guy, a good conversationalist”), also removed, in his case for fraudulent dealings. Nigel Wade, a former editor of the
Sun-Times, says the two Canadian businessmen did not return Ebert’s affections. “Conrad and David had no taste at all for his Guild sympathies—especially since they were paying him so well,” says Wade. “Neither trusted him and would have replaced him with someone cheaper if they had thought they could.” Moonstruck
In 1985, Ebert hired a friend, Sally Sinden, the unmarried mother of a baby son, to watch over the renovation of his recently purchased three-story Victorian house at 2114 North Cleveland Avenue. Although she was younger than Ebert, she describes herself as “always like the big sister.” The house itself wasn’t the only thing that needed renovating. When Ebert returned from trips, he would dump the contents of his suitcases on a long Victorian fainting couch in his bedroom. The pile crept higher as he bought new underwear, socks, and other staples, wore them, and tossed them on top.
Sinden took it upon herself to unpack his suitcases and wash and put away his clothes. She organized another mountain, this one composed of papers, books, records, and magazines. “He was like this brilliant absent-minded professor,” she says. Then she tackled his refrigerator. “There were things in [there] that were just scary.” She started doing his grocery shopping, paying his bills, feeding his cats, taking phone calls, making travel arrangements, and transcribing tapes.
Sinden transformed the job into that of a full-time personal assistant to a man who appeared to be a confirmed bachelor. Still, friends knew he was aching to find someone; that as busy as he was, he was lonely, especially when he was traveling. He said often that what he admired most about Gene Siskel was his devoted marriage and his obvious love for his wife and children.
Ebert’s mother, Annabel, presented something of an obstacle. “She didn’t want me to marry a divorced woman with three kids,” Ebert says. Friends believe the thought of her son taking responsibility for another man’s children bothered her most—more even than defying the teachings of the Catholic Church. For a short time, Ebert dated an Israeli woman, whom Annabel liked. “The girl was Jewish,” Ebert says, “but that wasn’t a problem because she was single” and childless.
At parties in Chicago, recalls Ebert’s friend Regan Burke, “Annabel was always pulling us aside and whispering, ‘Do you think Roger will ever get married? Do you think he’s ever going to lose weight?’”
“After the funeral, he better get his tuxedo ready,” one friend used to joke, meaning that Ebert would not get married until his mother died.
She died in 1987 and, a year later, Ebert met an attorney, a strikingly attractive African American, Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith, a divorced mother of two. The marriage proposal, Chaz recalls, came during the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo while they were sitting outside eating ice cream. She does not remember if she said yes immediately. They were married in July 1992 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church; the reception was held at the Drake hotel, across Michigan Avenue. Regan Burke describes it as “something out of a Merchant/Ivory film”—the room was filled with white lilies; the chairs were covered in white. Among the guests were Eppie Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers), Mike Royko, and Russ Meyer. Roger was 50; Chaz, in her early 40s (she will not specify her age).
“I’ll never be lonely again,” Roger said, toasting Chaz at the reception. When he was sick with cancer, she was at his side. Last summer at the Chicago Cultural Center during Roger Ebert Day in Chicago, when Chaz paid tribute to her husband from the stage, he rose from his front-row seat, with his arms extended, as if to hug his wife of 13 years.
The second youngest of nine children, Chaz Hammel grew up on the Near West Side of Chicago and graduated from Crane High School. Her late father worked in the stockyards and, after they closed, drove a taxi. Her late mother, nicknamed “Big Mama,” was a spiritualist minister and a Democratic precinct captain. Chaz eloped “very early,” she says. She graduated from the University of Dubuque in 1973 and earned a law degree from DePaul. Admitted to the bar in 1977, she describes her career as having been a mix of private and public practice, including environmental and civil rights litigation and work as a trial lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After her marriage to Ebert she stopped practicing law and gave up her license. Today she holds the title of vice president of The Ebert Company.
Chaz likes to write and would like to write for publication. But she recalls once going to their Michigan house with Roger and putting their computers back to back in the upstairs study. Roger’s fingers “flying across” the keyboard distracted her. “I got so frustrated,” she says, “I wanted to take his computer and throw it out the window.”
An enthusiastic Democrat, she supported Bill Clinton, volunteered in both the Gore and Kerry campaigns, and has organized two fundraisers for Hillary Clinton.
Friends say that Chaz takes care of Ebert and has made him, McHugh says, “less boisterous, not as big a party animal.” Joe Antelo credits her with “saving Roger’s life because she got him off the junk food; he was the world’s worst eater.” (Pre-Chaz he would diet all day, then eat a Tombstone pizza and ice cream just before going to bed.) Chaz admits that she has gained significant weight since their marriage. “I was small when Roger and I got together,” she says.
She has also given this only child whose close relatives, including his beloved Aunt Martha, are all dead a ready-made family—Chaz’s son and daughter and four grandchildren. “He is so grateful to have a family,” says Marsha Jordan, his producer at WLS-TV (for which he reviews and reports regularly). “This woman came along at a time when she brought exactly what he needed.” He and Chaz often take the children and grandchildren on long European vacations; recently they sailed on a barge in France.
Some old friends, including many of Ebert’s former drinking buddies, do not see much of him these days and, when they do, it is usually when Chaz is away. The Fourth of July parties at the house in Michigan have stopped. Regan Burke reminisces about how Roger would “invite all kinds of misfits to parties on the weekends in the summer, so they could enjoy something they’d never otherwise be able to enjoy, and then Chaz takes him out of that.” Ebert counters that the Fourth of July parties, run by Chaz, became such a “hot ticket” that they grew out of control and it was time to move on.
An Anglophile since traveling to London to visit Dan Curley in the mid-1960s, Ebert once favored ratty corduroy jackets with elbow patches; now he has a tailor from Hong Kong who comes every year on a U.S. tour and custom makes his suits. During a meeting with this reporter at the University Club, Ebert sported a straw hat and English wingtips and later volunteered that he was interested in British toiletries.
His beachfront stone mansion in Berrien County, Michigan, resembles an English country house. “When we get there, the look on Roger’s face changes,” says Chaz. “He absolutely and totally relaxes there in a way that he doesn’t anywhere else.” Ebert and Ingrid found the property shortly before he met Chaz. He paid $600,000 for it in 1989. “You’ve probably heard that he likes it better than I do,” Chaz says. But she made countless suggestions, her husband recalls, during the almost yearlong renovation. There is no mistaking Chaz’s pleasure in their house in Lincoln Park, for which they paid $1.85 million in 1992. “We found it together; we decorated it together,” she says. The five-story place is dramatic, with a stunning atrium that shows off three large paintings by the British abstract expressionist Gillian Ayres; there is an elevator, a 14-seat screening room, and an exercise room at the top.
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.”
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.
When Ebert and Siskel signed with Disney, there was no hiding the obvious conflict of having their paychecks signed by a major studio whose movies they reviewed. At the time, they pointed out that a clause in their contract guaranteed “complete independence and autonomy.” That clause remains in Ebert’s contract. “We have never received a single call from any member of Disney management about any review of a Disney film,” Ebert says.
Nobody offers any evidence, on or off the record, that Ebert has given special treatment to a Disney release. “The reason we haven’t had any accusations of conflicts of interest,” he says, “is because nobody’s ever been able to find one.” Stuart Cleland claims that Ebert does not even notice who makes the films he screens. Still, one reporter says he understands why a purist would find the conflict huge. “How do you work for a company that makes movies and be on their payroll and be a critic and a journalist? How do you write about and criticize that company’s movies? And that of its competitors? How can you say for sure whether you would have said something the same way?”
Ebert points to his “dumping on”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, made by a division of Disney, as recent evidence of his independence.
The other common criticism of Ebert is that he is too easy to please. “For my taste, he’s got the door open a little too wide,” says David Elliott. Laura Emerick, Ebert’s editor at the
Sun-Times, thinks that since his bouts with cancer, “he’s more positive in terms of giving films a break.” She has also noticed a soft spot for films that have a redemption story, such as overcoming alcoholism or social injustice.
Ebert has no qualms about having awarded three stars to Adam Sandler’s
The Longest Yard, although he admits some pangs of regret when he went to Cannes and saw 25 films “that were really swinging for the fences, and I realized how limited its ambition was.” On the other hand, he says, “when we read books, sometimes we read literature and sometimes we read Barbara Vine.”
“He likes more mainstream movies than I do,” complains the
Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who adds, “I read French film magazines a lot. His name doesn’t come up”—which is probably just as well for Ebert’s TV ratings. Rosenbaum describes himself as a critic’s critic and Ebert as a critic for the general public. Ebert would be flattered. The Remains of the Day
At the University of Colorado’s 58th Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Ebert and Andy Ihnatko, the
Sun-Times’s tech columnist, sat on a panel entitled How to Tell a Joke. The two made a $20 bet: off the top of his head, Ebert would try to tell ten jokes about masturbation. “Perhaps he is slowing down—he came up a few short. But he had the packed auditorium in stitches,” says William Nack, who was also there.
Ebert still relishes standing on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. When he appears, says De Los Santos, “it always causes a commotion with the fans-people trying to get his attention, to take pictures.”
Yet Ebert is now a couple of generations removed from the people who make culture popular, and increasingly it shows. “What are you doing here?” he asked Dennis Rodman as he approached the red carpet. “Well, I thought I’d come to see the Oscars,” Rodman replied. “Could you introduce us to your date?” Ebert asked. “I am Vivica A. Fox,” she said.
“I was just totally humiliated,” Ebert recalls. “She’s a famous movie star.” He also recently failed to recognize R&B superstar Usher, Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler, and Tyler’s daughter, the actress Liv Tyler.
Still, John Barron, the editor of the
Sun-Times, says that his profit center hasn’t skipped a beat: “Since his illness, Roger’s appetite for work is undiminished.” Early in his career he wrote 125 reviews a year; now he writes 280. “He is always on call,” says Barron, who speaks with awe of Ebert’s writing deadline tributes to Robert Mitchum, who died on July 1, 1997, and Jimmy Stewart, who died the next day. Ebert watches ten movies a week; when he goes to festivals he sees three times as many. He has written more than 30 books. “Just look every week in the Showcase section,” says the Sun-Times celebrities reporter Bill Zwecker, “and it’s Roger, Roger, Roger, Roger, Roger.” Sue Roush, Ebert’s editor at the Universal Press Syndicate, says it is “like he has 20 fingers. He’s like a one-man wire service.”
Friends have heard him say that he plans to give up the television show. “I often would make big announcements like that,” Ebert says, and then lists some of the smaller films that the show has brought to a wide audience—
My Dinner with André, Hoop Dreams, The Crying Game, Hotel Rwanda, and March of the Penguins. “I spend most of my time in print and yet much of my influence in print is because I’m on television,” he adds.
Some friends have heard him ruminate about moving to the English countryside to write a novel. “I never hear him talking about that anymore,” says Marsha Jordan of WLS-TV. “I think he’s just too busy.”
Still, his Anglophilia seems more pronounced than ever, and he talked for a time of buying a flat in London. “He’s obsessed,” says his friend Jack Lane, a photographer. “He loves walking; he loves the bookstores of London.” A collaboration in 1985 with Lane as the photographer and Dan Curley as the co-writer resulted in
The Perfect London Walk—a charming guide to the writers’ favorite spots, replete with literary and historical references. Curley died shortly after the book appeared, but Ebert would love to write something like it again.
He has taught in the continuing education program at the University of Chicago since 1968. His most recent course was Fassbinder at 60. He reads voraciously—recently
Don Quixote and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, as well as The Golden Bowl (again). He skips episodic television—“I’ve never seen The Sopranos,” he says.
And why give up such a good gig? Norman Mark, an old friend and a former TV critic for the
Daily News, has heard Ebert say that he gets paid “six or seven times every time he sees a movie. He’s very proud of that.” Ebert’s reviews are in print in the Sun-Times, on Ebert & Roeper, on WLS-TV, in his anthologies, on his Web site, and through the Universal Press Syndicate they go to more than 250 newspapers.
“I don’t even want to think about the day when he’s not there,” says Laura Emerick, “a very sad day not only for the
Sun-Times but for film criticism and the film world in general.” She stops in mid-tribute: “That’s the thing that’s always awed me about Roger. Why does he work so hard?” Emerick, an opera buff, answers her own question: “His job is his Valhalla. This is what makes him happy. I don’t see him ever giving that up.”
Ebert has agreed to write his memoirs for Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, but with the caveat that he have no contract, no deadline. “I just wanted to sit down and see what happened,” he explains. He plans a series of personal essays-one about Russ Meyer, another about growing up in central Illinois, another about his love affair with London. He has no interest in writing one of those chronological life stories that often close with the end of a career. He sees several chapters remaining in his.