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Roger Ebert: Television made him the world’s most famous film critic

Roger Ebert was the world’s most famous film critic, thanks to television.

The many incarnations of his movie-review TV show — a format he fathered nearly 40 years ago along with fellow critic Gene Siskel — made him a celebrity in his own right.

Ebert and Siskel’s first show, “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” debuted on WTTW-Channel 11 in 1975, the same year Ebert won a Pulitzer Prize for his Chicago Sun-Times movie reviews.

“People who set out to be in print like to be insiders, behind the scenes,” Ebert said in a 2005 interview with the Sun-Times.

“I had television thrust upon me,” added Ebert, who considered himself a newspaperman first, a TV personality second.

Regardless of whether he was drafted by WTTW or volunteered, he took to the medium naturally. Never pretentious or aloof, Ebert came across on camera as both an everyman and an intellectual. In this thick glasses, sweater and suit coat, he was your highly informed, somewhat nerdy uncle wholly consumed by his hobby — in this case, films.

“Gene said the secret of our success wasn’t that we were great-looking or polished TV performers,” Ebert wrote in the Sun-Times. “It was because we thought the movies were important, and we knew what we were talking about.”

Ebert spent decades on the small screen, passionately critiquing big-screen offerings and anointing them with his trademarked thumbs-up or thumbs-down. His sparring sessions with Siskel were often more entertaining than the movies the pair dissected. A couple of physical opposites from rival newspapers, the dueling duo would occasionally dissect each other, making jabs about hairlines and waistlines.

A year after the show debuted on WTTW it was renamed “Sneak Previews.” It would go on to be a nationally syndicated ratings blockbuster for PBS.

The Chicago-based program wielded far more influence than its humble production would suggest. It had myriad titles and owners throughout its long history, which included seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations.

Tribune Entertainment picked it up in 1982 and called it “At the Movies.” In 1986, they left Tribune for Walt Disney Co.’s Buena Vista Television, rebranding the show “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.”

After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert’s Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper came on board as co-host. The elder statesman relinquished hosting duties in 2006 when complications from cancer surgery robbed him of his voice.

After show was canceled in 2010, Ebert rolled out yet another version in 2011. “Ebert Presents at the Movies” left the hosting to other critics, while Ebert weighed in with essays read by others. It lasted about a year.

“I felt a poetic satisfaction that the show had completed a circle back to WTTW,” Ebert said, “where it all began.”



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