Even among those legendary professionals whose work is of such quality and such breadth as to change their profession itself, few stand apart quite so much as legendary film critic Roger Ebert did. From an early age, he became obsessed with cinema and with how movies worked. He was thunderstruck by how Mad magazine lampooned movies, noting that deep down, a lot of them were just recycling the same old ideas. Ebert was fascinated by what movies could and could not do, and he dedicated a nearly 50-year career to writing and broadcasting about the cinema. For 45 years, he wrote regularly for the Chicago Sun-Times, and for his efforts won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first journalist to do so for film criticism.
Also in 1975, Ebert launched a televised film review show called Sneak Previews, and in 1978, he was joined by his friend, rival and colleague Gene Siskel (who wrote for the competing Chicago Tribune). In 1982, their show became At the Movies with Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, which in 1986 became Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. The show ran like this until 1999, when Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor. In that time, the show was phenomenally popular, and the pair’s trademarked “thumbs up, thumbs down” system of rating movies made both critics household names.
Ebert continued working at a prolific pace until 2003, when he began what would become a protracted battle with multiple occurrences of cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands. In 2006, he had a cancerous portion of his lower jawbone removed and right before he left the hospital to return home, his carotid artery burst, perhaps because the artery wall had been weakened by Ebert’s radiation treatments. Ebert narrowly avoided death, but he lost his entire jawbone in the treatment that immediately followed, and could no longer eat, drink or speak.
It was then that Ebert shifted his efforts entirely to his newspaper and online writing, and became remarkably productive. 2011 was his most prolific year, publishing some 290 film reviews, publishing two books and winning several professional awards. On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, Ebert wrote that his cancer had returned once again, and that he would be scaling back his work output as he underwent further medical treatment and focused on launching a new website. Two days later, he was dead.