Roger Ebert at home in Chicago in 2011.
(Photo: Anne Ryan, USA TODAY)
CHICAGO (USA TODAY) - The balcony is closed.
For years, the team of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would end their movie-review show, Sneak Previews, by closing the balcony. Now, with Ebert's death Thursday from cancer, the man who helped bring the joy of movies to the masses has left the theater.
Ebert, 70, won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism and became the most influential and recognizable critic in the USA, especially after the weekly movie review TV series that popularized the "thumbs up" phrase.
Ebert, longtime movie critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, continued the show after Siskel's death in 1999 with fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper.
Ebert had been battling cancer for a decade, but remained a fixture on the film scene, continuing to attend festivals and covering the Academy Awards ceremony for theSun-Times.
When Ebert appeared in 2007 at the opening night of the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Ill. - his first public appearance after suffering complications from cancer surgery in 2006 - a sold-out auditorium of festival fans gave him two standing ovations. Though he could not speak as a result of surgery, Ebert used a computer program on his Mac that translated his typing into speech. "This is not the voice of HAL the computer," Ebert's Mac said, and the audience laughed.
Ebert started as film critic at the Sun-Times in 1967 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He authored more than a dozen books and wrote screenplays, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
On the air, he and Siskel brought renewed attention to classic films such as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, as well as giving exposure to noteworthy foreign films and new cinematic talent.
In print, Ebert wrote scholarly essays on film and criticism, but he also could unleash a sarcastic wit. Of the 1994 flop North, Ebert wrote: "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."
But it was his mid-1970s pairing with Siskel of the rival Chicago Tribune that made him a household name. The two sparred on air and off but always as equals and not without respect.
The animosity was no act. "When we seemed annoyed, it was because we were annoyed," Ebert once said. Some disagreements were legendary. "Gene didn't like Apocalypse Now, and I was appalled. I liked Cop and a Half, and Gene was appalled."
The two were often perceived as more populist and less esteemed than critics in New York and Los Angeles. But no critics before them - or since - can boast a trademark phrase that has endured as part of the cultural lexicon.
They were even parodied in film and on TV. In 1998's Godzilla, actor Michael Lerner played "Mayor Ebert," whose right-hand man was named Gene.
Although some detractors winced as Siskel and Ebert became celebrities, both critics were at the top of a short list of movie critics who the public recognized and trusted. And Ebert continued to enjoy that status, even as the Siskel spark never materialized with Roeper.
Said Ebert in 1999: "Our show founded the genre of battling opinions. We did it for so long, we would disregard the camera. Gene always said he had an audience of one - me."