Ebert also was one of the first journalists caught in the crossfire of media consolidation. When the Walt Disney Co. began distributing his show in 1986, analysts wondered if Ebert's integrity would be compromised, since a movie company was writing his paycheck. Ebert insisted that while the Disney deal made him rich, his independence was untarnished.
Ebert's criticism could be unsparing. He said of J.J. Abrams' "Mission: Impossible III" (2006) that "modern high-tech action sequences are just the same damn thing over and over again." In a 2000 book, "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie," Ebert rounded up some of his more scathing reviews of films whose "degree of badness" ranged from "deplorable" to "merely hilariously misguided," he wrote.
The critic had his own detractors. Some film veterans believed that his "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" rankings (really good movies earned two thumbs "way up") made criticism less thoughtful, even infantile. During the late 1980s, influential New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael ridiculed Siskel and Ebert as "the Katzenjammer Kids," the comic strip's goofball twins.
In 2008, Ebert came under fire for writing a negative review of the independent film "Tru Loved" after viewing only eight minutes of it, a fact he revealed at the review's conclusion. Ebert apologized on his blog and posted a review of the film, which was still negative, after watching it in its entirety.
Roger Joseph Ebert was born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill., the only child of Walter, a University of Illinois electrician, and Wanda, a bookkeeper. He often saw movies with an aunt.
Shortly before his father died of cancer in 1960, Ebert won first place in an Illinois Associated Press sportswriting contest. The high school senior already worked for a local paper.
At the University of Illinois, Ebert edited the student newspaper and freelanced for Chicago newspapers. After receiving a bachelor's degree in journalism, he dropped out of a University of Chicago doctoral program to take a Sun-Times feature-writing job.
Before he became a recognizable critic, Ebert wrote several 1970s B-movie screenplays, including "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens"; none attracted terribly strong notices.
His writing ease amazed and annoyed colleagues. While others agonized, he was known to stroll into the office half an hour before deadline, tell some jokes, then pound out his piece.
The idea for the TV show that would make him a multimillionaire was hatched by two Chicago public television producers. One, Thea Flaum, insisted on pairing Ebert with Siskel — the two were fierce archrivals — since Siskel wrote for the competing Chicago Tribune.
Ebert was "the most hated guy in my life," Siskel once said. Ebert later said, "I think each of us initially said yes because we didn't want the other guy to do it first." Well after the show was a hit, they could refuse to share an elevator.
"Opening Soon at a Theater Near You" debuted in 1975. The format remained relatively constant: Two critics sit in movie seats, one offers a synopsis of a new film, clips are shown, and the critics debate the film's merits.
Even though their tastes were often similar, Siskel and Ebert made much of their differences — one was bald, the other overweight, Siskel the more intellectual, Ebert the more populist. They could bicker like an old married couple, which made the show endearing to many and unbearable to a few.
"Sometimes, in the heat of argument, it sure feels like hate," Siskel said in 1998 of his relationship with Ebert. "You can't pay two guys all of their adult lives to have opinions and not expect them to have strong opinions about each other."
By the end of the first season, the show was on more than 100 public television stations. In 1978, it was named "Sneak Previews" and moved to PBS, reaching 180 markets, making it the highest-rated entertainment show in the history of public broadcasting, Television Week reported.
By 1982, the program was syndicated by Tribune Entertainment and called "At the Movies." Four years later, along with another name change, to "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," came yet another syndication distributor — Disney's Buena Vista Entertainment, and the idea to incorporate the opposable thumb into their on-air reviews, a concept that Ebert claimed as his own.
"The Siskel-Ebert chemistry was perfect," Thompson said. "They were both curmudgeons, and neither one was attractive in conventional TV terms. The style of the show was one step up from cable access.... That was a good, shrewd choice for them, because so much in the film world had been slicked-up to within an inch of its life."
At the University of Chicago, Ebert taught film studies for years, and he recorded DVD commentaries for favorite films, including "Citizen Kane."