Legendary film critic Ebert gone, but his show will go on
Roger Ebert will no longer physically be in the back of Champaign's Virginia Theatre, but Roger Ebert's Film Festival will go on.
And not just this year.
The $1 million gift that Mr. Ebert and his wife, Chaz, gave to his alma mater, the University of Illinois College of Media, established a film studies program in the famed critic's name.
"Ebertfest will be part of that — that was his wish and we will continue that," College of Media Dean Jan Slater said. "Chaz will continue to be involved."
Mr. Ebert died on Thursday — two weeks before the start of the 2013 Ebertfest — at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he had been undergoing physical therapy after a bout of pneumonia. On Tuesday, he wrote in a blog that his cancer had recurred and that he would undergo radiation.
Chaz Ebert said in a written release hours after her husband died that they were getting ready to go home Thursday for hospice care "when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition," she said.
The world, online and off, took notice of the death of the man who "was without question the nation's most prominent and influential film critic," wrote Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, where Mr. Ebert had worked since 1966.
President Barack Obama issued a statement: "Michelle and I are saddened to hear about the passing of Roger Ebert. For a generation of Americans — and especially Chicagoans — Roger was the movies. When he didn't like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive, capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical.
"Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient — continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world. The movies won't be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family."
Gov. Pat Quinn, who was in Mexico on Thursday, said in a written statement he had spent time just last week with the Eberts in Chicago.
"Even in recent years when illness robbed him of his ability to speak, the mere act of raising his thumb brought auditoriums full of people to their feet in applause," Quinn said. "One of my best memories was getting a 'thumbs-up' from Roger in 2011 when I proclaimed 'Roger Ebert Day' at Ebertfest in Champaign.
"Roger Ebert was Everyman with a cinematographer's eye and an artist's passion. His unique gift was the ability to communicate with everyday people about all kinds of movies and ultimately, the real values of life.
"He was one of our best-known and most respected journalists, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (in 1975) as a Chicago Sun-Times film critic, and a proud and generous graduate of the University of Illinois where he began his journalism career at the Daily Illini."
Mr. Ebert, who was born on June 18, 1942, in Urbana, might have been a famed movie critic but at heart he remained a newspaper man, according to Slater and other journalists who admired his reporting and writing.
He had begun his journalism career as a young sportswriter in 1957 at The News-Gazette — three years before he would graduate from Urbana High School, where he was co-editor of The Echo.
There Mr. Ebert would hold forth and argue topics with classmates.
"He loved to argue," remembered Steve Shoemaker, who was a year behind Mr. Ebert at Urbana High School and whose wife, then Nadja Lancaster, was in Mr. Ebert's class.
"He'd be in a class and argue on one side of an issue and then persuade everyone to come to his side and then he'd switch sides.
"We could tell he was very bright at an early age," Shoemaker said.
After graduating, Mr. Ebert went to the UI, where his father, Walter, worked as an electrician. In 1963, during his senior year, he served as editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Illini. Much later, when the newspaper had financial problems, he wrote a column on its behalf.
After graduating from the UI in 1964, Mr. Ebert spent time in graduate school at the University of Chicago, studying English literature, and in Africa. He returned to the States, landed a reporting job in 1966 at the Sun-Times and a year later was named the newspaper's film critic.
At earlier Ebertfests, he often joked that friends of his mother, Annabel Ebert, would always ask her whether her son was still "going to the movies."
He took a leave of absence from his newspaper job in 1969 to write the screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," directed by Russ Meyer. He showed the cult classic at the 2007 Ebertfest, following it with a live appearance on stage by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, a '60s band that had appeared in the movie.
In 1969, Mr. Ebert also began teaching a film course at the University of Chicago extension and in 1975 began appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 television with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel in the show "Coming Soon to a Theater Near You."
The TV show underwent several incarnations over the years and moved to different networks but made Ebert, Siskel and their "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" household terms.
As a critic, Mr. Ebert "had no grand theories or special agendas, but millions recognized the chatty, heavy-set man with wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses," Associated Press reporter Caryn Rosseau wrote after his death.
"Above all, they followed the thumb — pointing up or down. It was the main logo of the televised shows Ebert co-hosted, first with the late Gene Siskel of the rival Chicago Tribune and — after Siskel's death in 1999 — with his Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper. Although criticized as gimmicky and simplistic, a 'two thumbs up' accolade was sure to find its way into the advertising for the movie in question."
The thumbs-up symbol also found its way into Ebertfest. After the UI College of Media started Ebertfest 15 years ago, Mr. Ebert eventually had one of his thumbs, pointing up, cast for the manufacture of souvenir trophies given to all Ebertfest guests, including Quinn.
Always a workhorse, Mr. Ebert reviewed 300 movies a year. After he grew ill he would schedule his cancer surgeries around the release of important pictures, Steinberg reported.
"He eagerly contributed to other sections of the papers — interviews with and obituaries of movie stars, even political columns on issues he cared strongly about on the editorial pages," the Sun-Times columnist wrote.
In 1997, Mr. Ebert began to write books on the movies he loved and the movies he hated. He also wrote a column, "Movie Answer Man," in which readers would ask him questions about movies "that only a Roger Ebert knew or could ferret out," Steinberg wrote.
"That, too, became a book. Ebert wrote more books than any TV personality since Steve Allen — 17 in all," Steinberg wrote. "Not only collections of reviews, both good and bad, and critiques of great movies, but humorous film-term glossaries and even a novel, 'Behind the Phantom's Mask,' that was serialized in the Sun-Times. He even wrote a book about rice cookers, 'The Pot and How to Use It,' despite he fact that he could no longer eat. In 2011, his autobiography, 'Life Itself,' won rave reviews."
It is now being made into a documentary, produced by his longtime friend, Martin Scorsese.
Mr. Ebert no longer appeared on TV review shows after losing part of his lower jaw in 2006, and the ability to speak or eat. But he did not retire from the public eye. Instead he forged "what became a new chapter in his career, an extraordinary chronicle of his devastating illness that won him a new generation of admirers," Steinberg wrote.
Mr. Ebert also forged a strong identity on the Internet. Technically adroit and savvy — Steinberg reported he had been an early investor in Google — Mr. Ebert became one of the few, if only, print film critics that found a way to thrive on the Internet.
"His rogerebert.com had millions of fans, and he received a special achievement award as the 2010 'Person of the Year' from the Webby Awards, which noted that 'his online journal has raised the bar for the level of poignancy, thoughtfulness and critique one can achieve on the Web,'" Steinberg wrote. "His Twitter feeds had 827,000 followers." Among them is pop star Taylor Swift.
Nearly a third of his "Life Itself" memoir is devoted to his childhood, adolescence and college years in Urbana. He considered his childhood here nearly idyllic, a word that later would be used to describe his film festival.
Over the years, especially recent years, Mr. Ebert received a slew of awards, among them a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. That same year then-Mayor Richard Daley proclaimed "Roger Ebert Day" in Chicago. The famed critic recalled then that he had known no one in Chicago as he traveled there on U.S. 45 from Urbana to start a new life.
"Just look around, and I know almost everybody here. It's just amazing," he said from under the marquee at the Chicago Theatre on State Street, where a sidewalk medallion in his honor was dedicated.