Roger Ebert hasn’t spoken a word in years, but America seems to be listening to him more than ever. His movie reviews. His online journal. His new autobiography, Life Itself . While other newspaper columnists from his generation might be crotchety and bemused about tweets and twitters and video streaming, Ebert’s medical realities have propelled him to the head of the class, affording him newfangled awards like Webbys’ “Person of the Year” and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ recent prize for “Best Blog.”
Even the old guard gets the new him.
Ebert’s prolific online journaling—at times so poignant and poetic you wonder why he spent four decades reviewing movies—was called one of the year’s best blogs by Time magazine in 2010. His website, rogerebert.com, has been averaging 10 million hits a month, and not just when he writes about his date with Oprah.
At 69 years old and in curious health, Ebert is being heard, a lot, and it’s neither a coincidence nor an act of God. It’s an act of Roger Ebert.
For about five years now, not that he’s counting, Ebert has been unable to eat or speak. Not one sip. Not one word. This, of course, is a predicament for even the most average of Joes, but Ebert’s a guy who earned a living for many, many years sitting before a camera, recounting his visceral views on the most recently released movies, and he did this in his own voice. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert, the first critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, came through that with what was considered flying colors. At the time, doctors told him his cancer was one of the best kinds to have.
The next year, though, they found malignancy in his salivary gland and Ebert and his medical team—and presumably his beloved wife, Chaz—opted for four weeks of intense radiation. In Life Itself, Ebert writes about his treatment, which he discovered himself while doing medical research online, and which he now believes made him what he is today. When the cancer returned in 2006, this time in his jawbone, the radiation had damaged his facial bones so badly that any subsequent reconstructive surgeries never took, even when doctors used healthy bone from elsewhere in his body.
Slowly, Ebert—once famously round and robust—began to lose his face. Eventually, after near-death complications following his fourth surgery, he also lost his voice, and today Ebert is nourished through a feeding tube.
“I believe my infatuation with neuron radiation led directly to the failure of three of my facial surgeries, the loss of my jaw, loss of the ability to eat, drink, and speak,” he writes.
Yet, Roger Ebert is happy.
You can sense this from his writing—so melodious and insightful and honest it sometimes sucks the breath right out of you. After escaping death and reinventing his life, Ebert now sits at his computer, delving into cerebral matters that extend way beyond a review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo—which, of course, he hated.
From his memoir:
What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too…. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.
For our interview, Ebert answers questions by email, his preferred manner of communicating these days—although he does love a stack of Post-it notes, the handy-dandy talking technique he uses with his wife, his full-time home nurse and good friends invited to their Chicago townhome.
“I email incessantly,” he writes to SUCCESS. “Oddly enough, texting is too slow for me. I don’t like to wait.”
He also doesn’t like to talk about what’s wrong with his life.
Since 1992, he’s been married to Chicago lawyer Chaz Hammel-Smith, at his side for everything from surgery to business matters to quiet nights at home. When we ask him to recount his favorite story of his beloved Chaz, he responds, “One?”
(Yes, we knew he was a sarcastic sort.)
Ebert is currently cancer-free and considers himself in good health. “Despite my various disabilities, I actually am in excellent health,” he says, “… so the doctor informs me after periodic checkups.” He’s happiest when he’s reading a good book or surrounded by friends and family. He still sees about four to seven movies in any given week. “During a festival, as many as 20,” he says.
And he writes—oh, does he write—hundreds of thousands of words. Funny. Sad. Insightful. Infuriating. Caustic. Kind. He writes about politics and movies and misbehaving stars.
Frankly, it’s hard to know when he sleeps, since his Twitter account, @ebertchicago, is generally updated every hour or so. And we’re not kidding.
“I am a writer and have been from childhood,” he says. “I haven’t spent many days of my life not writing something, and that provides its own motivation.”
And the re-inventions continue. Including his new autobiography, Ebert has written 14 books, plus his annual compilation of the year’s best movies. His reviews are still published in roughly 200 newspapers worldwide. But he’s also hip to new media.
Online, his reviews are posted visually at Ebert Presents at the Movies (ebertpresents.com), and Chaz Ebert is the show’s producer. It’s a new enterprise he started after losing his speech, so veteran newsman Bill Kurtis often does the voicing. Indeed, Ebert doesn’t usually appear, except in the canned intro. (He has a prosthetic voice available to him, but uses it, selectively, at home.)
The format is familiar—and he intended it that way—fashioned after his longtime TV and print partnership with friend and colleague Gene Siskel, who died of cancer in 1999.
“The show format had proven itself for 35 years,” says Ebert, who still writes his reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. “In a time when gossip and stupidity inundate media coverage of film, it serves an important purpose.”
There is no trick to his happiness, except he does find it necessary to showcase others who have overcome perhaps greater odds, a not-too-little something he often does online via YouTube links. Have you seen this amazing California man without arms who plays guitar with his toes? Allow Ebert to show you.
Perspective is perhaps now his middle name. Because when all is said and done, Ebert still has everything he’s ever loved—minus the burger and fries at the corner diner under the Chicago train tracks.
Books. Movies. Family. Friends. And that amazing brain of his, which can jump-start his fingers, send them flying, day or night, sometimes saying the damnedest things. He writes about it all, from the Tea Party to Winnie the Pooh to the end of life.
From his memoir:
I know it’s coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter.
Grateful, indeed. For in his silence, Roger Ebert has learned to speak more eloquently than ever.