Roger Ebert was America's best-known film critic – and arguably its best. But that was hardly his only accomplishment in a long and distinguished career. Ebert, who died Thursday at the age of 70, wasn't just a critic, but a screenwriter, a music fan, an on-line activist, a historian, and even Oprah Winfrey's date for an evening. As we remember Ebert's life and work, here are eight things you might not have known about the man.
See Ebert talk about thumbs, stars and film criticism:
Ebert invented "Two Thumbs Up." Ebert's famous TV partnership with Gene Siskel began in 1975 with a local program aired once a month called "Coming Soon To A Theater Near You." By 1978, it had become a weekly PBS show called "Sneak Previews," and was a hit in the ratings. When Buena Vista Television (a division of Disney) offered Ebert and Siskel a more lucrative deal in 1986, they took it, but needed to make some changes so as not to seem like they were ripping off the old show. That meant no longer giving movies a "Yes" or "No" vote as they had before. "I came up with the idea of giving thumbs up and thumbs down," Ebert later said. "And the reason that Siskel and I were able to trademark that is that the phrase 'two thumbs up' in connection with movies had never been used. And in fact, the phrase 'two thumbs up' was not in the vernacular. And now, of course, it’s part of the language.”
Ebert knew sci-fi and Illinois history. Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois in 1942, and by the mid-1950s, he was already as passionate fan of science fiction writing. Ebert's earliest published writings were letters to the editor that appeared in sci-fi fanzines, including Richard A. Lupoff's influential "Xero." A bright student, Ebert began attending classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before he had even graduated high school. By the time Ebert graduated from U of I, he was editor of their student newspaper, and in 1967 he published a history of the school, "Illini Century: One Hundred Years Of Campus Life." It was the same year he became film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ebert didn’t just review movies, he wrote them. In the late 1960s, Ebert struck up a friendship with Russ Meyer, the idiosyncratic director of soft-core sex films, after defending Meyer's work in print. In 1970, Meyer invited Ebert to write the screenplay for his first major studio project, and "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" went on to become a box office success and a cult favorite. Ebert later wrote two more films for Meyer, "Up" and "Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens."
Ebert Hung Out With Johnny Rotten. Russ Meyer was recruited to make a movie about the Sex Pistols when the pioneering punk band was at the height of its infamy in 1976. Meyer invited Ebert to write the screenplay for the project, then called "Who Killed Bambi." While working on the project, Ebert enjoyed a memorable evening with Meyer and Johnny Rotten, who angered the World War II veteran when he badmouthed the British military, saying, "What do I want with the f---ing army?" Meyer replied, "You listen to me, you little s---. We won the Battle of Britain for you!" As Meyer later recalled, "I reflected that America had not been involved in the Battle of Britain, and that John Lydon (his real name) was Irish, and therefore from a non-participant nation. I kept these details to myself." The film was never made, but Ebert wrote a memorable essay for his blog about his experiences.
Ebert Was A Music Writer, Too. Among his other assignments for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert occasionally covered promising local musicians. The liner notes to the 2011 album "The Singing Mailman Delivers" by John Prine, a celebrated singer and songwriter from Chicago, includes a story Ebert wrote about Prine before he recorded his first album in 1971.
Ebert Knew About Google Before You Did. Ebert was a passionate advocate of new media, embracing Twitter and launching an on-line presence before most of his peers, and he was also one of the first investors in a firm called Google. When Google made its initial public offering in 2004, Ebert's stock in the firm was said to be worth $1.8 million.
Ebert Dated Oprah – Once. When Oprah Winfrey was the host of a local television show in the 1980s called "AM Chicago," Ebert asked her out for a date, and she said yes. It's said that the evening wasn't all that memorable, except that Ebert told Oprah she should consider creating a syndicated version of her show, since his program with Gene Siskel was becoming a major windfall for him. Oprah ended up with a media empire, and Ebert married Chaz Hammelsmith in 1992, suggesting it all worked out for the best.
Ebert Sought To Stamp Out Spam. As an early adopter of e-mail, Ebert was as annoyed as anyone by the rise of electronic junk mail, and in 1996 he wrote an anti-span screed, which included what he called "The Boulder Pledge." The pledge read, "Under no circumstances will I ever purchase anything offered to me as the result of an unsolicited e-mail message. Nor will I forward chain letters, petitions, mass mailings, or virus warnings to large numbers of others. This is my contribution to the survival of the online community." Not bad advice for anyone with an e-mail account.