Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous and least pretentious film critic of his day, the first in his field to win a Pulitzer Prize and the owner of a thumb that became a recognizable trademark, died Thursday at the age of 70.
Ebert had been battling cancer since 2002. On Tuesday, he had announced on his website "a leave of presence" to slow his reviewing schedule after he learned his cancer had recurred. His death came the day after he celebrated his 46th year as a critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Tributes to Ebert flowed Thursday from Chicago's City Hall, fellow critics and even from President Barack Obama, a Chicagoan who praised Ebert for his honesty, enthusiasm and resilience. "The movies won't be the same without Roger," Obama said.
Indeed, the movies have lost perhaps their biggest and most outspoken fan, a term Ebert often used to describe himself. As a writer, he praised or panned movies with unadorned, regular-guy prose. "If you liked the earlier films, I suppose you gotta see this one," he wrote of "American Reunion," last year's sequel to the comedy "American Pie," adding: "Otherwise, I dunno." His 2007 book of scathing reviews bore the blunt title, "Your Movie Sucks," a phrase he once lobbed at Rob Schneider for creating the infamous comedy-bomb "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo."
On his television shows with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, from 1975 through Siskel's death in 1999, Ebert frequently bounced up and down in his seat with excitement. His short stature, chunky build and thick glasses gave him the look of an average ticket-buyer rather than an egghead, and he wasn't above reducing his critiques to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
"He had a desire to communicate to a wide audience and would talk about movies in simple, clear language free of jargon," said Dylan Skolnick, co-director of Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. "You didn't have to be a film scholar or film theorist to get what he was talking about."
But Ebert was, in fact, as erudite as they come, and his wide-ranging taste included foreign films, documentaries and art-house fare. He used his television sway to push audiences toward Louis Malle's 1981 hit "My Dinner With Andre." He championed the unorthodox German director Werner Herzog even through that filmmaker's lean years (Herzog frequently praised Ebert as "a good soldier of cinema"). Recently, Ebert extolled the virtues of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," a film many critics dismissed as overly arty.
Ebert also collaborated with Russ Meyer, an exploitation filmmaker, cowriting the screenplay for 1970's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," which remains a cult favorite.
Cancer barely slowed the critic down. Despite losing portions of his jaw and the ability to speak after cancer surgeries in 2006, a gaunt and disfigured Ebert continued to write full time and even returned to television wearing a prosthetic jaw and enlisting various guests to read his words aloud. Determined to connect with readers, he became a prolific blogger and relentless tweeter, racking up 31,260 posts.
"My blog became my voice, my outlet, my 'social media' in a way I couldn't have dreamed of," Ebert wrote in his memoir, "Life Itself."
The son of a union electrician who worked at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus, Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Urbana on June 18, 1942. His journalism ambitions surfaced early: Ebert covered high school sports for a local paper at age 15 while also writing and editing his own science fiction fan magazine. While attending Urbana-Champaign, he was editor of the student newspaper. He first began working for the Sun-Times in 1966 and eventually established his own film festival, Ebertfest.
In 2005, he became the first critic to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"Thank you," Ebert wrote on his website Tuesday. "Some of you have read my reviews and columns . . . Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I'm glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for."