Editor's Note: Longtime Bee features reporter Dixie Reid wrote this story, published March 20, 2005, after interviewing Roger Ebert. A noted film critic, Ebert died today.
Roger Ebert stepped from the hotel elevator, his cheeks pink after a much-needed nap. There he was - the jowl, the eyeglasses, the critical stare - fresh from the Oscars.
"That's ... that's, " stammered a woman passing by. "Ebert, " her companion whispered. "That's Roger Ebert."
Along with the Hollywood stars whose work he's scrutinized for 38 years, Ebert has become one of the most recognizable characters in show business.
He is, first and foremost, a journalist, the longtime film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His movie reviews are syndicated, appearing in 250 newspapers throughout the country, including The Bee. And he was the first movie critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize for arts criticism, which he won in 1975.
But it is Ebert's television work, reviewing films, first alongside the late Gene Siskel (using the thumbs up-thumbs down shorthand) and now with Richard Roeper, that made him a household face. ("Ebert & Roeper" airs at 11:30 p.m. Sundays on Channel 13.)
And this summer Ebert will join a host of entertainment legends with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"I'm gonna be next to Tim Allen, in front of the El Capitan Theatre. Not too far from Harold Lloyd. Right down the street, I think, from Lassie, " he says, settling into the Four Seasons' bar for an afternoon cup of tea.
Ebert scouted his future star's spot on Hollywood Boulevard while in Los Angeles for the recent 77th Annual Academy Awards, a long weekend that had him conducting interviews from the red carpet and then backstage, and hammering out a story on his laptop. Then there were the Oscar parties.
He stopped off in San Francisco a few days afterward to talk about his latest book, "The Great Movies II" (Broadway Books, $29.95, 520 pages), the successor to his 2002 volume. (See story at right.) He's at work on the third in the series.
Ebert sees 500 movies annually and reviews about half of them, as he has done for years. In the introduction to "Great Movies II, " Ebert wrote that he "could very easily bear the thought of not seeing many of them again, or even for the first time. What a pleasure it is to ... look closely and with love at films that vindicate the art form."
Among his favorites are the silent films of Buster Keaton, whom Ebert calls "the greatest actor-director in the history of movies." And, if Ebert could plant his Hollywood star anywhere he pleased, it would be next to Keaton's.
"But, " he says, "I'm going to be discovering Harold Lloyd this year. Have you ever seen a Harold Lloyd movie? You've seen that picture from 'Safety Last, ' where he's hanging from a clock. Harold Lloyd felt the silent period was over and done with, and he saved all his prints but wouldn't allow anything to be released."
Finally, a collection of Lloyd's films is coming out on DVD this year.
"So after I see Harold Lloyd's movies, " Ebert says with a grin, "I may be really happy to be in his neighborhood."
Roger Ebert was born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill. He grew up around newspapers. His father belonged to the electrical workers' union and followed politics closely, so his parents subscribed to the Chicago Daily News as well as two local newspapers.
The city editor at the News- Gazette in Champaign, the adjacent town, was the father of Ebert's best friend. One day he walked the boys through the plant, where they saw reporters and editors at work. Ebert knew that very day that he could become what he calls "a newspaperman." He wasted no time getting started.
He was barely able to write, he says, when he began publishing the Washington Street News in his basement, delivering copies to a dozen neighborhood houses.
He worked on his grade-school newspaper, was the editor of his high school paper and, by age 15, was earning 75 cents an hour covering high school sports for the News-Gazette. During the summer, he'd write about county fairs and car crashes. And on many nights he could be found at a movie theater.
One of Ebert's co-workers was an older teenager named Bill Lyon, who went on to become a sports columnist for 33 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. They were both sportswriters back then, Lyon covering Champaign High School and Ebert covering Urbana High, where he was a student.
"Even then, he was very creative, " Lyon says. "I remember a period when he was writing and another fellow was drawing science-fiction comic books, which were very good. I think Roger was born with an aptitude for our profession. I didn't know where he would end up, but even then he had an unmistakable talent."
Ebert became the Chicago Sun-Times' movie critic in 1967. He is now, at age 62, a pop culture icon, thanks to all the years he's appeared on television. He and Siskel debuted their small-screen partnership in 1978.
"I've regularly gone to the Telluride Film Festival, " says Linda Williams, professor of film studies at the University of California, Berkeley, "and one of the most extraordinary things is that he is the most recognizable face, even though there are big movie stars there."
"I've always admired his knowledge, wit and intelligence, and when it gets down to writing, he's very good. I think the reviews are too short, though. His books give him a chance to expand, " says Williams.
"He's the most famous of the hometown reviewers, " adds David Van Leer, who teaches English and film studies at the University of California, Davis, and writes books about pop culture in the movies. "He's frequently well-written, frequently zippy, but he's never made it into the stream where people who study films professionally want to read him."
Even so, Ebert is popular with mainstream moviegoers, says Sue Rousch, his editor at Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes his reviews to newspapers.
"He's the number-one most-recognized critic in the country now, " she says. "Roger is the best. It's amazing to think how much time he spends watching films. He also reads extensively and he draws on that literary background in his reviews, making allusions to literature and theater, and not everyone can do that."
Ebert's job takes him to the major film festivals - Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and Sundance. And each April he hosts Ebertfest, also known as the Overlooked Film Festival, at the University of Illinois, his alma mater. He picks films he loves that haven't yet found an audience.
Ebert has written 15 books, mostly about the movies, and in the '70s composed three screenplays for director Russ Meyer, most notably "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970).
He goes to the Academy Awards as a working journalist, but he's reached the realm of celebrity that gets him invited to some of the biggest parties. In the days leading up to the Feb. 27 Oscars, he and his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, attended one soiree for the four black Oscar nominees (Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo) and another honoring just Foxx.
Then it was time for work. Ebert conducted live interviews from the red carpet for ABC-TV before moving into the press room at the Kodak Theatre to file his Oscars story. Afterward, he raced out to the El Capitan for televised post-show analysis with Roeper, and then he was off to the Vanity Fair party. The previous day, he had covered the Independent Spirit Awards.
"I needed that nap today, " says Ebert, who is healthy after a round of cancer scares a few years ago.
When he was doing his red carpet work at the Oscars, Ebert summoned best-director nominees Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood and was surprised when they walked over together.
"Now that was interesting, " says Ebert, who had named Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" the year's best movie, "because I don't think Eastwood and Scorsese were necessarily looking to meet each other on the red carpet."
Scorsese was up for directing "The Aviator, " his fifth nomination. He has yet to win an Oscar.
"I was the first person to review a Scorsese film, " Ebert says. "It was 1967, at the Chicago International Film Festival, and (afterward) he called me from New York because he didn't have enough money to come to Chicago. I said in the review (of an early version of "Who's That Knocking at My Door"), 'In 10 years, this is going to be one of our greatest American directors.'
"And he said to me, 'Do you think it's going to take that long?' It didn't, because he made 'Mean Streets' and 'Taxi Driver' within that period.
"I met Eastwood when he came to Chicago to promote 'A Fistful of Dollars.' I go back far enough with some of these people that when they don't want to talk to anybody, they don't mind talking to me, because they started out talking to me."
Nowadays, an interview with a Hollywood director or actor is inevitably like this one with Ebert: conducted in a hotel with a publicist hovering nearby. Things were different in the late 1960s, Ebert says.
"When I was younger, you would just go and spend a day with somebody, hang around with them. Robert Mitchum had dismissed his driver and had his buddy driving the car, and they were lost in Pennsylvania, trying to find a (movie) location. Mitchum was smoking pot the whole time, right in front of me. I alluded to it in the story. Mitchum was cool with that. One time I spent a whole day at Lee Marvin's house in Malibu, and he was getting drunk."
He remembers the night John Wayne was in Chicago and had a representative from the Warner Bros. studio invite the local film critics to his hotel room.
"The Duke wants you to come over, " the publicist said. "He's in the presidential suite of the Conrad Hilton, and he wants to get drunk."
"So, " says Ebert, "the four of us spent the evening with the Duke. It wasn't that he wanted us drunk, he just wanted some company."
Unlike the old days, this interview with Ebert will be over in just under 48 minutes. The once-hovering publicist is now standing over the table, pointing to his watch. Ebert nods, then has one more tidbit to share:
"Groucho Marx claimed to me that his biggest buddy in Chicago was (the poet) Carl Sandburg, the film critic at the Chicago Daily News. Groucho said Sandberg slept through all the movies, and he told him what they were about, " Ebert says with a chuckle.
Dixie Reid was a longtime features writer for The Bee. She now works for California State University, Sacramento.