Roger Ebert: Starting Over

Roger Ebert, who lost the ability to speak due to cancer tells Cynthia Bowers through a computer about his partner and friend Gene Siskel.
Roger Ebert, who lost the ability to speak due to cancer tells Cynthia Bowers through a computer about his partner and friend Gene Siskel.
Starting Over in the wake of a terrible setback is one of the hardest things a person can do. Yet that is exactly what one very well-known writer and television personality has done . . . with remarkable good humor. Cynthia Bowers has paid him a visit:

He's been called America's movie critic. For more than four decades, Roger Ebert has guided our choices at the box office.

His syndicated newspaper column and trademark "thumbs up/thumbs down" routine with TV partner Gene Siskel were legendary.

But now that famous voice has been silenced.

"Do you remember what your last spoken words were?" asked Bowers.

"No, because I didn't know they would be my last words, or I would have written something great," Ebert replied.

For the past three years, Ebert has been talking via a computer voice that speaks what he types.

His lower jaw is gone, ravaged by cancer that nearly killed him.

"Are you able to talk in your dreams?" Bowers asked.

"Everything is fine in my dreams. I talk all I want. Life is normal," he said. "Sometimes in a dream I will remember that I can't speak, but then suddenly I can speak again."

Ebert could surely never have dreamed this storyline for his life when he began at the Chicago Sun-Times back in 1967. His elegant style and wit quickly made his movie reviews must-reads.

And what makes a movie great to Roger Ebert?

"I feel it," he replied. "It fills me with joy for its greatness. When I experience it, I sometimes even feel a tingle in my spine. Honestly, it's an almost spiritual feeling."

Ebert won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for film criticism. Soon, he tried his hand at television, teaming up with rival critic Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune.

"At first, we weren't on speaking terms," Ebert recalled. "Then we spoke, but we fought a lot. Our rivalry was very real. But all the time, we were becoming better and better friends. We were like brothers."

And they fought like brothers on-screen. Their bitter arguments and "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system made them famous.

"I came up with the idea for the thumbs, which had never been used before to review movies," said Ebert. "We were the first. Trademarking them was Gene's idea."

Siskel and Ebert were a staple in homes across the country during the '80s and '90s. But in 1999 their partnership came to a sad end when Gene Siskel died of brain cancer.

"He taped his last show only a few weeks before his death," said Ebert. "He must have been in pain, but he never once complained."

"You miss him?" Bowers asked.

"I miss him terribly every day," he replied.

Only three years after Siskel died, Roger Ebert was given his own devastating diagnosis of thyroid and then salivary gland cancer.

He was fighting for his life. But he was not alone.

Attorney Chaz Ebert is Roger's wife. They found each other in the late 1980s and have been a team ever since.

"Sometimes I really think that it was kind of destiny that we were together," Chaz said.

"Throughout this illness you've had to learn a whole new language - what is that based on?" Bowers asked.

"I would say maybe it's the language of love," she replied.

"I was single for a long time," Roger said. "I met her and it just felt right. It still does. She is not an ordinary woman."

And what she's done for Roger is extraordinary.

Through the years of long hospital stays and near-fatal complications, Chaz has supported her husband even when it became so hard for them to go on.

"He went through times when he felt he didn't want to go on," Chaz said. "There were times that I had to not only fight for him, but fight with him to tell him why life was worth living."

But then, after doctors repeatedly tried and failed to rebuild his jaw, Ebert decided that was it - no more surgeries. He would spend the rest of his life unable to speak.

But all those years on TV gave technology a rare opportunity.

Graham Leary works for CereProc, a Scottish company that's creating a Roger Ebert "voice" using thousands of his own words.

"He has a large archive of recording material of his voice from when he had the ability to speak," said Leary. "And we are able to use that data to build a voice for him."

Ebert's been using a computer voice until his is finished.

We asked, when he hears the "Roger voice," what does he feel?

"It sounds like me. That feels great. But I have good comic timing and a very personal delivery, and no computer voice will ever be able to duplicate that. You can't tell a joke on a computer."

Bowers asked Chaz, "When you hear the computer talk to you in Roger's voice, what's that like?"

"The first time I heard it, it was overwhelming because I did not realize that I had missed his voice," she said.

"Chaz, I love you," Roger said.

"I love you, too."

It's been 43 years since Roger first walked into the Chicago Sun-Times fresh out of college. He isn't there much these days, but when he does go back, colleagues gather around to say hello. A touch to his heart shows his appreciation.

"People talk about him being the heart and soul of the paper," said publisher John Barron. "And that's kind of cliche, but in this case it is true."

But while he's back to visit, Roger's also there to work. Cancer-free and reenergized, the 68-year-old has millions of readers on his blog, and he's churning out new books - including one of rice cooker recipes, a gadget he discovered while trying to lose weight before getting sick.

Even though Roger receives food through a tube, he still loves to cook with Chaz. He says he's happiest beside her in the kitchen . . . and at the movies.

America's movie critic is back. He sees as many as ten films a week and debuts a new version of his TV show later this month. And instead of shying away from the public and the way he looks, Roger is embracing it.

"I said, 'The hell with it - this is how I look,'" he said. "People with problems like mine should get on with their lives and not hide because of it. I don't want to look this way, but I do, so please don't make it your problem."

Roger Ebert is a changed man. But still, there's one constant …

"We are on a mission together," he said of himself and Chaz. "To make each other happy."

Roger Ebert's 10 Best Films of 2010:
1. "The Social Network"
2. "The King's Speech"
3. "Black Swan"
4. "I Am Love"
5. "Winter's Bone"
6. "Inception"
7. "The Secret in Their Eyes"
8. "The American"
9. "The Kids Are All Right"
10. "The Ghost Writer"

For more info:
Roger Ebert's Blog
Roger Ebert's Ebertfest
Roger Ebert's Drawings
Roger Ebert on Twitter
Roger Ebert on Facebook
"The Pot and How to Use It" by Roger Ebert (Andrews McMeel)
"The Great Movies III" by Roger Ebert (Univ. of Chicago Press)