By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
It may be time to crown a new “Hardest Working Man in Show Business”: Roger Ebert, who this year will celebrate 30 years as TV’s most recognizable movie critic.
Mr. Ebert not only does 48 original episodes of Buena Vista’s widely syndicated “Ebert & Roeper” TV series each season, he is also the movie reviewer for ABC’s WLS-TV in Chicago and has recently launched a comprehensive film Web site, rogerebert.com. In addition, he teaches a college class at the University of Chicago and lectures at scores of other venues, while still writing almost 300 film reviews per year for the Chicago Sun-Times. His 16th and 17th books will be published in 2005.
In 1975 Mr. Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. He will be the first to earn a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame later this year.
“Roger is one of the smartest and most talented people I have ever worked with,” said Thea Flaum, who in 1975 tapped him as one of the two hosts of what was then called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” a movie review show she created and produced for WTTW-TV, the public broadcasting station in Chicago.
“This is someone who writes his reviews at typewriter speed,” she said.
“He’s raucously unaffected by his status,” said Eliot Ephraim, who along with his father, Don Ephraim, is Mr. Ebert’s agent. “He would never think of himself as a TV star. In his mind, he’s a writer and an educator about film.”
Mr. Ebert has become the nation’s best-known film critic, thanks largely to his pairing with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on what started as that local Chicago show. Its title, after the series became a hit for PBS, eventually changed to “Sneak Previews,” then changed again in 1981 to “At the Movies” when the show went to commercial syndication.
After its move to distribution by Buena Vista Television in 1986, it became known as “Siskel & Ebert,” and in 2000, following Mr. Siskel’s death in 1999, it morphed into “Ebert & Roeper,” co-hosted by Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times.
This season the show has an average weekly 2.0 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research, and an estimated 3.3 million unique viewers. Mr. Ebert’s “thumbs up,” which he trademarked when paired with Mr. Siskel, has become part of Americana.
“The audience respects him,” said Janice Marinelli, president of Buena Vista Television. “Roger has earned that respect. He defends his position about the films he reviews and does so in an objective, communicative way.”
“His appeal to the audience is that he’s smart,” said Gwynne Thomas, executive VP programming at Buena Vista. “But more than that, he makes us smarter on how to spend the $10 a movie ticket will cost. Plus, he’s brilliant at putting a film in its historical context, its place in history. No other critic can do that as well.”
For his part, Mr. Ebert said, “I think from the outset of doing the show people were responding to the fact that we were two people talking about the movies we had seen, just as they might be doing. Maybe we knew a little more and could tell them what to look for in the film.”
As a teenager attending the University of Illinois, he was hired by the local Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette “as a full-fledged, paid reporter,” he said, “not an intern.”
He was a journalism major in college, but was drawn, he said, to the many film societies on campus, “where for 25 cents you could see a wide array of film, past and present. It was there I was introduced to Bergman and Fellini and saw a print of ‘Citizen Kane.'”
Planning to stay in college and go for his doctorate, Mr. Ebert was hired in the fall of 1966 by Sun-Times editor Warren Hoge as a film critic.
Mr. Ebert’s love of movies has not stopped; he sees more than 300 per year and has reviewed in excess of 4,000. His books include the upcoming ” Great Movies II” as well as his annual “Movie Yearbook.” With a keen eye on technology, he has even made his reviews available to U.S. Cellular mobile phone subscribers.
Never was film more important to him, he said, than in the past year, when he was successfully battling cancer of the salivary gland and often feeling ill from the treatment.
“My relationship to the films I was watching was both healing and connective for me,” he said. “In fact, it was redemptive. I see myself essentially as a print writer, but I think I can communicate my own love of film. If anything, that’s my gift.”
It is one Hollywood respects.
“I like the style of his reviews,” said Arnold Messer, president of Phoenix Pictures, which has earned its share of thumbs up appraisals for films such as “The Thin Red Line.”
“To a great extent, Roger Ebert is able to put himself in the audience’s place and not be some technical-sounding critic,” Mr. Messer said. “He really has emerged as the audience’s voice.”
“He gives a real pulse of what the reaction to a film will be,” said Paul Pompian, producer of the soon-to-be-released “Swimming Upstream.” “I think the Hollywood community senses he’s fair-minded, and it goes without saying that the image of that thumbs up can help sell a film.”
Title: Co-host of “Ebert & Roeper”; film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times
How long in current position: Film critic since 1966; on TV since 1975
Date of birth: June 18, 1942
Place of birth: Urbana, Ill.
Additional current projects: Launched RogerEbert.com in 2004
Who knew? He shares his birthdate with Paul McCartney.