On this day in 2013, one of America’s best-known and most influential movie critics, Roger Ebert, who reviewed movies for The Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, dies at age 70 after a battling cancer. In 1975, Ebert started co-hosting a movie review program on TV with fellow critic Gene Siskel that eventually turned them both into household names and made their thumbs-up, thumbs-down rating system part of American pop culture.
Born on June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Illinois, Ebert was the only child of an electrician father and bookkeeper mother. At age 15, Ebert he began writing about high school sports for his local newspaper. In 1964, he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where majored in journalism and served as editor of the school’s newspaper. Two years later, he went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper’s film critic retired in 1967, Ebert was named as her replacement.
Ebert’s column soon became a must-read for movie lovers, and in 1975 he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he and rival critic Gene Siskel, of The Chicago Tribune, were paired as co-hosts of a monthly movie-review show, “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” on Chicago’s public broadcasting station. In 1978, the show, renamed “Sneak Previews,” went into national syndication, and later became the highest-rated half-hour series in the history of public television. In the early 1980s, the program was acquired by another broadcasting company and rechristened “At the Movies.”Its name was changed to “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” in 1986, the same year the two hosts, who became known for their sometimes contentious on-screen chemistry, debuted their thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgments.The program helped turn Siskel and Ebert into some of the planet’s most powerful film critics as well as celebrities in their own right. After Siskel died in 1999 at age 53 from a brain tumor, Ebert selected his Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper as his new co-host and the program was rechristened “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.”
Ebert reportedly watched 500 movies a year and penned reviews of at least half that many on an annual basis. (In 2012, when asked to name the 10 greatest films of all time, his list included such titles as “Apocalypse Now,” “Citizen Kane,” “Raging Bull” and “Vertigo.”) His work was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and he was the author of more than 15 books, including the acclaimed 2011 memoir “Life Itself.” Ebert had a brief foray into movie making when he wrote the script for 1970’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Upon its release, the film was trashed by critics, including Siskel.
Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and salivary gland cancer the following year, Ebert lost the ability to speak, drink and eat in 2006 following surgery for jaw cancer. However, he continued to work, writing for the Sun-Times, blogging for his own website and developing a large following on Facebook and Twitter. On April 2, 2013, Ebert publicly announced he would be writing fewer reviews due to a recurrence of cancer. He died two days later. The Sun-Times published his final movie review on April 6, for “To the Wonder.” Ebert awarded it 3.5 out of 4 stars.