Jim Tuohy on Roger Ebert

Author’s note:

We had been friends since the 1960s when we were newspapermen together at the Chicago Sun-Times, and in recent months they died. They were exceptional talents and they died in a sad cluster of months—first Bill Granger, then Paul McGrath, and now, of course as the whole world knows, Roger Ebert.

The thousands of words, the hundreds of stories and reminiscences about Ebert’s life summed up: a talent approaching genius, famous but not snooty, loyal friend. Those are accurate observations, I believe, and anything I might have written about Roger in early April would not have added anything very different.

However, 30 years ago I wrote a profile of Ebert for the Chicago Journalism Review, which editor Rob Warden had converted into a section of the monthly investigative journal, Chicago Lawyer. The story follows a couple of days in the life of Ebert during a pivotal period for him, when he and Gene Siskel had just transferred their movie review program from PBS, where high ratings had made them nationally known, to Tribune Entertainment, where they would  become internationally famous and millionaires.

The piece, I think captures a nice bit of the Ebert style, before he was married and long before they started putting his name on public sidewalks.  Chris Chandler, the editor of North Avenue Magazine, thought it gave– except for the biographical detail–a perspective different from other published tributes to Ebert.

With permission, the story is reprinted below.
Chicago Lawyer, March 1983

By James Tuohy

ROGER EBERT HAD arrived at the movies, but the movies had not. “There’s no 1 o’clock screening of Trenchcoat,” Ebert said into a telephone at the reception desk of the Film Media Center, a film-editing firm that has a screening room. “It’s been cancelled.”

Ebert was calling his office—the one at Tribune Productions, not the one at the Chicago Sun-Times or the one at WLS or the one at the University of Chicago. He used to have one at the Mer­chandise Mart too, but he recently quit doing mo­vie reviews there for Channel 5. He keeps busy, though, doing daily reviews and weekly articles for the Sun-Times, radio commentaries for ABC radio, and At the Movies, the weekly program in which Ebert and Tribune critic Gene Siskel review movies, which appears on 130 television stations.

The crowded schedule occasionally creates logistical breakdowns, such as on this Wednesday after­noon, as Ebert was informed by the At the Movies office that Walt Disney productions had failed to furnish a print of Trenchcoat. At The Movies had been informed of the cancellation, but this informa­tion was not transmitted to Ebert.

“You have to remember to take it out of the book when it’s cancelled,” said Ebert calmly into the telephone. He stood with his rain coat hanging loose and open, its collar up, and he held a white bag in his hand. He replaced the receiver, took off his coat, and sat down on a flat, cloth-upholstered couch. He reached in the bag and spread on the floor a hamburger with ketchup, mustard, onion, and hot pep­per, French fries and, somewhat futilely, a medium-sized diet drink. It was lunch time.

* * *

Breakfast for Ebert had been in Columbia, Missouri. He and Siskel appeared at the University of Missouri the night before, and Ebert returned to Chica­go about 10:15 a.m., armed with a line for the day: “Fifteen-hundred people came to see us. We out­drew the basketball team.” The comment was typi­cal of Ebert, pithy and cheerful and delivered with a hint in his voice that it might even be true.

There were almost 9,000 people at the basketball game in Columbia, but there was a game.

Ebert took a cab to the fringe of Old Town, to an old three-story, red-brick townhouse he bought last year, moving from a smaller townhouse around the corner. “One day I was looking for a parking place, and I saw a For Sale sign. The owners showed me around, and I said ‘I’ll take it.”

It cost about a quarter of a million dollars.

Ebert does not give details on his earnings, but media personalities at his level talk about salaries in chunks of hundreds of thousands, and he’s making several chunks. He owns several pieces of property, including the townhouse he moved out of.

“It’s hard for me to know how much I have because a lot of it is tied up in mortgages,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m rich, but I make more money than I ever thought I would.”

Such statements have to be coaxed out of Ebert, for whom money has never been the primary reason for doing what he does. He gave up his lucrative three-day-a-week contract with Channel 5 simply because he wanted more free time. A bachelor and for 17 years a well-paid movie critic for the Sun- Times, Ebert lived comfortably long before his other contracts came along. He does radio and television mainly because he likes to.

“It’s fun,” said Ebert, who always had a streak of ham in him, whether on the stage in high school, telling jokes in a bar, recounting travel adventures to friends, or making guest appearances on talk shows. “I thought, at this point in my career, I would be writing a general interest column, but now that At the Movies is a hit I don’t have time. It’s OK, though. I love the movies.”

Ebert walked through the living room of his townhouse, which has been kept out of the grasp of interior decorators. He walked into the kitchen, fed his two cats, dropped his bag in a second-floor bedroom, and called the Sun-Times from a third-floor study. He picked up five radio scripts from a desk. Each one-minute long, they would be played on 400 ABC-affiliated radio stations the following week.

Ebert walked to his 1980 grey four-door Volkswagen and drove to the Stone Container Building at Wacker and Michigan. There, in a small studio, he sat at an empty table and laid his scripts down in front of a microphone. On the other side of the glass sat Bob Benninghoff, the engineer.

After some preliminaries, he said into the mike, “This is Movie News for Tuesday, March 15th…John Huston received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award . . . Who else do you know who’s been master of the hunt… beachcomber in Mexico… lover of great women… Boxer…director…African Queen…Key Largo… Treasure of Sierra Madre…Why, if it weren’t for John Huston, the late show wouldn’t be worth staying up for…”

Ebert looked over to Benninghoff again. “Was that a take? It was too short, wasn’t it? Do another one. I’ll add a sentence…Take two…the Late Show wouldn’t be worth staying up for. Of course, he also made Annie, but nobody’s perfect.”

Because of stumbles in delivery, Ebert did four takes. “He’s working hard on this,” said Benninghoff.

Ebert ran through the other four scripts with retakes on only two of them. He had entered the studio at 12:30 p.m. At 12:49 he completed the tap­ings, his week of radio toils finished. “I’ve got a mo­vie at one o’clock,” said Ebert, who never wears a watch.

“Don’t they wait for you, Rog?” asked Benning­hoff.

“They have a way of inviting other people, Bob.”

In his car Ebert listened to tapes of the current week of ABC broadcasts, which Benninghoff had given him. Movie News runs at 7:45 a.m. in Chicago, and Ebert seldom listens to it then. Ebert parked in a lot next to Lenny’s, a prefabricated hot dog stand on Ontario, where he ordered lunch, the one he would take in a white bag to the Film Media Center.

One of Ebert’s great culinary disappointments has been that the Steak-and-Shake chain has never successfully entered the Chicago market. He grew to love Steak-and-Shake steak burgers as a child in Urbana. The white-and-black-tiled short-order shops have inspired Ebert to rhapsodies through the years, both written and oral.

Ebert was born in Urbana on June 18, 1942, the only child of Walter and Annabelle Ebert. Walter, who was 40 when Roger was born, was an electrician. Annabelle worked as a bookkeeper. Roger’s stable, two-car Midwestern childhood could have been used in scripting an Andy Hardy movie.

He lived all his growing years in the same two-bedroom white stucco house with green shutters at 410 W. Washington Street. The Eberts lived across the street from the city editor of the Champaign News-Gazette, and he sometimes took Roger with him down to the paper, even when Roger was still in the grades at St. Mary’s Catholic School. For almost as long as he remembers going to Steak-­and-Shake, Roger wanted to be a newspaperman. When he was in fifth grade he put out his own newspaper, The Washington Street News. When he was 15 he began working 30 hours a week at the News-Gazette, covering sports and features, and he wrote for and became editor of the Urbana High School paper, The Echo. Along the way, Ebert, took first place in a state radio contest, preparing a five-minute newscast on deadline and then reading it.

As a freshman at the University of Illinois in 1960, Ebert started his own weekly paper, The Spectator, which was devoted to the arts and poli­tics. Like his writing skills, Ebert’s interest in the arts developed early, the cultural opportunities be­ing extensive in a university town. As early as grade school he began attending concerts, plays, and, of course, the movies. He became a regular col­umnist for the Daily Illini when he was a freshman and the editor of the paper when he was a senior. While still in college he sold pieces to Panorama Magazine, the Saturday feature section of the Chi­cago Daily News. In 1966, after going to graduate school and being accepted into the doctoral program in English at the University of Chicago, Ebert was hired as a reporter at the Sun-Times.

He covered routine stories and wrangled feature assignments. He wrote about underground films. He wrote a review of the movie Blowup, did the Sun-Times’ obituary of Walt Disney, and was sent to the West Coast to do feature stories on the film­ing of Camelot. Seven months after he started at the Sun-Times, the paper’s movie critic retired. On April 1, 1967, Ebert became the youngest movie critic on a daily newspaper in the United States.

“It was very exciting. I was very lucky.”

Ebert was also very good. Before Ebert, Chicago daily movie critics generally behaved as nightlife columnists still do, cheerleading for advertisers. Ebert knew that a whole new generation of movie­goers was buying newspapers, and they considered films serious artistic endeavors, not just Saturday night diversions.

His first review was of Galia, a French art film. “What we’re hearing is the sound of the French New Wave rolling aside,” he wrote. Chicago news­papers weren’t used to reviews about prissy foreign waves. The old-time hack reviewers could only scratch their heads.

Ebert, possessor of a smooth writing style, brought magazine-quality slickness to his daily re­views. His background as an English major gave him a solid understanding of plotting and pace, if not always the nuances of film mechanics, and his age kept him attuned to the concerns of the anxious young people of the 1960s.

On the other hand, although his prose was as so­phisticated as, say, that of the reviewers for Time magazine, Ebert liked more movies than did non- newspaper critics, many of whom seemed bored by movies without subtitles. He did not reserve high ratings for films that were made with aspirations to high art. A movie, he believed, was successful if it became in the end what it set out to be in the begin­ning. A good John Wayne western should be re­cognized as such, Ebert believed, and should not be belittled because it didn’t try to be as important as The Rules of the Game.

In 1975 Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for criti­cism. The award was given for 10 articles he had written during 1974, including reviews and com­mentaries. One of the reviews was an effective de­molition of Mame, which Ebert had finished writ­ing within 45 minutes of the screening.

At 1:45 p.m., his Lenny’s lunch completed, Roger Ebert was talking on the phone in his office at the Sun-Times to his office at Tribune Productions. “It’s not your fault. It’s all right. This way I don’t have to see Trenchcoat, and I’m in my office two hours early.”

Ebert’s office is in a corner of the fourth floor fea­tures section of the newspaper, with windows that look east toward the Wrigley Building and the Chi­cago River. He had to write a review of Death Watch for Friday’s paper, as well as a script for At The Movies.

Ebert’s office has more pictures, signs, posters, books, papers, plants, and knickknacks than the eye can quickly comprehend, even on a careful sweep of the room. There are posters for Casablanca, The Big Sleep, Headline Hunters, The Third Man, and The Seven Samurai. Near his old Smith-Corona typewriter is a gumball machine with glass gumballs in it, close by a dozen little Disney figurines and big Donald Duck. On top of filing cabinets are old newspapers, pocket books, film refer­ence volumes, and video tape containers. On the walls are pictures of Ebert with Lillian Gish, Harri­son Ford, and Pia Isadore. On a pile of post cards is one showing a buxom blonde in a revealing outfit, signed “Sex Symbol Sybil.”

The phone rang.

“…We outdrew the basketball team,” said Ebert. “Fifteen-hundred people packed the auditorium. The show is real popular there . . .”

Ebert answered some mail. “Dear Cary, next time I’ll go-fer the dictionary. . . Dear Sonny, I share your enthusiasm, especially for E.S. White and cats.”

Bobby Zaren called. Zaren is a legendary press agent known for sending out only personal letters, never press releases or mimeographed letters.

” . . . Right, Bobby…That’s why you’re the number one press agent in New York–or is it publicist now? I like press agent better. Press agent sounds like someone smoking cigars and running blondes down Broadway.”

Ebert was delaying the moment when he would write. He had seen Death Watch in New York more than a week before and could have written the review any time, but he never writes until he has to.

At 3:15 he wrote the script for reviews of two mo­vies he would give on the At The Movies show to be taped the next day. At 3:45 he was done.

Ebert was due at 6:30 at the University of Chica­go on Michigan Avenue, where he teaches a film class every Wednesday night. Tonight the subject would be Frederic Fellini. Ebert paged through a file of Fellini material.

At 5:30, using no notes, Ebert began writing his review of Death Watch. He worked at a computer terminal behind his desk. He was finished, after re­visions, at 6.

There were about 100 people at his film class. Ebert passed out free tickets to a screening, gave away a couple of paperbacks he had received in the mail, and showed 8 1/2, leading a discussion after­wards. The class broke up at 10, and he and a pret­ty psychiatrist went to Miller’s Pub for a late sup­per. She talked about her high school days in a small Missouri town, and mention of Missouri re­minded Ebert that he had just been there. “We out­drew the basketball team,” he said.

* * *
The following day, Ebert left his Volkswagen in the parking lot of the WGN-TV studios on the Northwest Side. “When I get inside, the first thing I that will happen is that Gene will say something about my being late, like “The World’s Latest Movie Critic.”

But, when Ebert opened the door of room 136, Siskel was typing his script in a corner cubi­cle and he said nothing. It turned out he had a bad cold and was saving his voice for the taping.

Although Ebert writes his two reviews the after­noon before the taping, Siskel waits until Thursday morning because Wednesday is a crowded day for him. He regularly comes in an hour early on Thurs­day, allowing him to needle Ebert about being late.

Ebert was the youngest daily movie critic in the country until Siskel, three years younger, got the Tribune job in 1970. They have spent so much time being adversaries that friendship has come slowly, if it can be said to have arrived at all. They do not meet socially, indeed, do not travel in the same so­cial circles. Ebert lives simply, dates a variety of women, and frequently goes to dinner with a few old friends, a couple of whom are carpenters. Siskel lives in a Gold Coast co-op and is married to an ad­vertising woman who is a former Channel 2 producer, and his social activities involve the high-power­ed media people of the city. The Siskels might be dining at Le Perroquet while Ebert and his pals are eating at the Parthenon.

It might be said that Siskel and Ebert have a strong lack of dislike for each other. The strongest bond between them is their respect for each other’s professionalism. They retain good humor while working together, though remaining dogged com­petitors in large and small ways. When Sun-Times TV columnist Ron Powers won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, two years before Ebert did, Ebert said he was happy for Powers but admitted he never could have been happy if it had gone to Siskel. For the two and a half years that he did re­views for Channel 5 Ebert’s total earnings exceeded Siskel’s and, he admitted, that fact gave him great satisfaction.

As Siskel typed, Ebert talked with Joe Antelo, the executive producer of At The Movies. There had been an article about Ebert and Siskel in USA Today that morning. It said they “are on the verge of turning themselves into the hottest properties in non-network television.”

“Nice article,” said Antelo.

“Couldn’t be better,” said Ebert. ‘Said we were the hottest thing in syndication.”

Ebert and Siskel first got together at WTTW in1975, a once-a-month show titled Opening Soon At a Theater Near You. In 1979, the show evolved in­to the weekly Sneak Previews, which ran for three seasons and became the highest rated program in the history of the Public Broadcasting System. But PBS is a strange operation. The budgets are big, but salaries are small. In August of 1981, after three years of Sneak Previews, the WTTIV ma­nagement offered Ebert and Siskel a four-year con­tract at a raise of $100 each year. WTTW would sell the program to commercial syndication, but Ebert and Siskel would share in none of the profits. In the meantime, Antelo approached Don Ephraim, lawyer for Ebert and Siskel, about putting together a package for Tribune Productions. Ebert and Siskel now share in profits that have raised their salaries by hundreds of thousands each year.

Ebert developed a line to cover the whole WTTW situation: “I already pledged to PBS and got my tote bag. I’ll be damned if I’ll pledge four years of my life, too.” The USA Today writer used it as the last line of his story.

When Siskel finished his script–reviews of The King of Comedy and Tender Mercies–his pages were joined with Ebert’s reviews of My Tutor and High Road to China. All the copy was put in a long roll and sent down to the teleprompter.

After separate lunches in the WGN cafeteria—a gyros sandwich from the steam line for Ebert, skin­less breast of chicken from home for Siskel—and separate trips to makeup, the two critics were seated on the set at 1:15 p.m.

Siskel, wearing a brown sport coat, red crew neck sweater, and red-checked sport shirt, read Variety. Ebert, wearing black slacks, a blue V-neck sweater, and blue button-down shirt, talked.

Ebert had kept up a running commentary all morning—which Siskel, too hoarse to banter, had endured silently. Ebert had been particularly de­lighted by a wire-service story in the Sun-Times that said women found men with hair sexier than men without. He had taped it to the wall. “Phil, you probably saw today that article about women’s at­titude toward baldheaded men,” said Ebert to the floor manager, Phil Reid. “It said a man without hair is like a ring without a diamond.”

The start of taping had been delayed by a technical problem. Ebert continued his patter, comment­ing repeatedly on Siskel’s cold-induced passiveness.

“My partner here is fighting his usual losing bat­tle with catatonia…If my car behaved like Gene, I’d need a new set of jumper cables.”

”That’s a Rodney Dangerfield line,” he said. It is not a Rodney Dangerfield line. Ebert just wanted an excuse to do a series of Rodney Dangerfield jokes, which he did.

The taping went slowly due to technical troubles, but Ebert’s and Siskel’s readings went smoothly, requiring few retakes. Their ad libs between reviews, some almost two minutes long, were recorded without retakes.

The Stinker of the Week portion of the program requires the presence of a skunk named Aroma, and at 3:20 it was placed in a seat next to Ebert. He began petting it. “Hi, kiddo,” he said to the skunk.

Siskel did not address the skunk.

“Gene’s a little afraid of the skunk,” said Nancy Stanley, the makeup woman.

Ebert said he had received a post card during the week from a viewer who wanted to know if the skunk was real. “People are so used to special effects these days they can’t even tell a real animal,” said Ebert. “I wrote her hack and said the skunk is real but Gene is a special effect.”

The tape rolled with a close up of Aroma. “No, we couldn’t keep him away,” said Siskel, ad libbing the introduction. “That’s Aroma, and it’s time for The Stinker of the Week.”

“Do you know we actually got a post card want­ing to know if Aroma is real?” asked Ebert.

“Yes,” replied Siskel. “I told them the skunk is real but you are a special effect.”

Ebert let out a great laugh.

The sound was bad, and the exchange was reshot three times. On the last one Ebert could not resist the temptation to add a rejoinder: “Jumper cable for Mr. Siskel, please.”

It was not as funny as it had been the original way. It was, in fact, a non sequitur, but producer Nancy De Los Santos let it stand.

“OK, Roger, that’s a wrap for you,” said De Los Santos at 4:10.

Ebert had time to go home, shower, and change clothes before leaving for the 6 o’clock screening of Trenchcoat, a movie so bad he contemplated awarding it no stars.

On the way home that night Ebert stopped at O’Rourke’s, an Old Town bar he did a lot to popula­rize. Through the years Ebert wrote about O’Rourke’s, interviewed actors there, and hosted parties there. The place gained a reputation as a hangout for celebrities and media stars. Ebert quit drinking three years ago, but he still drops in for brief visits.

Ebert started to tell a political story to Chris Chandler, a press aide to Mayor Harold Washington. But he was interrupted by a woman who said she was a reporter from Newsweek. “We’ve been thinking about doing a story on you,” she said.

“Any time,” said Ebert. “USA Today says we’re the hottest thing in syndication. We went down to the University of Missouri and outdrew the basket­ball team.”

The woman looked impressed. Ebert looked like a man who knows how to have fun.