Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly half a century, and a game-changing television presenter, died Thursday at the age of 70.
Ebert had been in ill health for some time. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and, through complications from that disease and subsequent surgeries, he lost his lower jaw, and with it, the ability to eat, drink, and talk. Yet he remained a prolific writer right up to the end.
Ebert will be remembered as a pioneering media figure -- he won a Pulitzer, the first for a film critic, and co-hosted At the Movies, "one of the most powerful programs in television history," according to the Chicago Tribune.
He'll also be remembered as one of the best critics in American history. He was prolific, accessible, passionate, and honest. By all accounts (see the Deadspin.com article linked below), he was a nice guy and a mentor to a younger generation. He was a champion of the movies. But most of all, he was a hell of a writer.
At 22, I was an aspiring writer/journalist living in Chicago. I loved movies -- still do -- and was attending the same university Ebert did for a brief spell (he left a Ph.D. program to write for the Sun-Times). At that point in my life, I wanted to be like Roger Ebert.
When Night of the Living Dead was released in 1967, Ebert wrote a quasi-review of the film that, as a student years later, I read probably a dozen times; it spawned the idea for my own graduate thesis (analyzing the way audiences interact with horror movies, quite a ways from my current work today, but a lot of fun, nonetheless).
I've read hundreds of Ebert's reviews, although I never personally interacted with him. However, Ebert and The Motley Fool crossed paths over the years. Before the 2002 Academy Awards, Fool co-founder Tom Gardner interviewed him for our radio show -- you can listen to the audio in this clip. (Note his prescient "sell" call on Blockbuster back then.)
In the clip, Ebert talks about his admiration for the Danny DeVito quote about money from David Mamet's 2001 movie Heist. We liked that line so much that producer Mac Greer incorporated it into the intro to our current radio show, Motley Fool Money.
Tangential note: After Ebert lost his ability to speak, a company called CereProc spent a year constructing a text-to-speech voice that would resemble his own. Per Wikipedia:
In 2009, film critic Roger Ebert employed CereProc to create a synthetic version of his voice. Ebert has lost the power of speech following surgery to treat thyroid cancer. CereProc mined tapes and DVD commentaries featuring Ebert's voice to create a text-to-speech voice that sounded more like his own. Roger Ebert used the voice in his March 2, 2010 appearance appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
As part of that process, we sent CereProc the interview linked above, in the hopes of helping him sound like his old self.
Future generations will surely have must-read film critics, innovative media entrepreneurs, outstanding and accessible writers. But Ebert was one of a kind. He'll be missed.
Roger Ebert, remembered:
- Roger Ebert Dead at 70 After Battle With Cancer (Chicago Sun-Times obituary; free registration required)
- Roger Ebert: A Film Critic With the Soul of a Poet (Chicago Tribune obituary)
- Roger Ebert: The Essential Man (Esquire profile from 2010)
- My Roger Ebert Story (Deadspin.com story from 2010)