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We’re all rooting for Roger Ebert as he fights cancer

Roger Ebert  |  Phoby Eileen Ryan

Roger Ebert | Photo by Eileen Ryan

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Updated: May 5, 2013 3:06PM

“My newspaper job,” Roger Ebert once said, “is my identity.”

So naturally word that Ebert, the most famous and influential movie critic in the world, is stepping back from that beloved newspaper job, taking “a leave of presence,” in his clever phrase — so typical of him; ignore the cliche, forge something new — is a thunderclap. The cancer he has been fighting since 2002 has returned, he reports in his online journal, and he has to dial back his enormous workload to devote time and energy to fighting it.

The term often associated with Roger is “workhorse” but that misses the joy of what he does. It isn’t just keeping up with the endless output of Hollywood and the world cinema — reviewing 306 movies last year, his most ever — but his fertile, restless mind, searching to do more. A column answering readers’ question about the movies? Why not? A book about classic movies — films that came out before 1967, when he started reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times? Sure. Political columns? Bring ’em on.

Seventeen books — including a novel, including a book on walking tours of London, a city he loves, including a book on rice cookery, written after surgery in 2006 robbed him of ability to speak or eat. His most recent book, a memoir, “Life Itself,” topped them all. “This is the best thing Mr. Ebert has ever written,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times. Fittingly enough, it’s being made into a movie by his longtime friend, Martin Scorsese.

But that is Roger in a nutshell. He keeps improving, keeps clearing hurdles. When he first fell ill in 2002, when many a man in his situation would have bowed from the stage, Roger worked even harder, scheduling screenings around surgeries. When part of his jaw was removed, rendering him, ah, more distinctive, he did not hide from the spotlight — he sat for his portrait in Esquire.

It could be argued that his post-illness work, his blog postings about his health battles, are a career as extraordinary and important as his movie work.

“I am not going away,” Roger wrote Tuesday. That is certainly true. He couldn’t, even if he never wrote another word. He is lodged in the culture he swayed, in the minds of readers across the world, and in the hearts of his friends at the Sun-Times. I’m a relative newcomer — I’ve only known him for the 26 years I’ve been on staff, and in that time he has been the soul of kindness, patient, funny, helpful. The word commonly bandied about is “respect,” but it would be more accurate to say Roger is viewed with a blend of awe and love.

No writer’s stepping back from work was ever more deserved or less welcome. Whatever the future holds, he will face it with his trademark courage and grace, and we will all be rooting for Roger, thinking of him, praying for him and of course, as always, reading him.

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