In his easygoing, candid and altogether charming autobiography, or, as he calls it, “Life Itself: A Memoir,” Roger Ebert fails to mention me: The nights he and I had many drinks on the porch of his house on Chicago’s Dickens Street and elsewhere, the favorable in-print review I gave to one of his early forays into television or the many times he attempted, persuasively but without success, to convince me of the benefits of AA.
These are understandable, even wise, omissions, given all that Ebert has to pack into 436 pages and how effectively he manages to detail that life, which began in relatively idyllic youth in Urbana, Ill., as the only child of Walter and Annabel. He details college life at the University of Illinois with fondness; his love of newspapering, which began early, took him through high school and college jobs and, since 1966, work at the Chicago Sun-Times; some of his love affairs and sex life, which include the I’m-not-sure-I-really-needed-to-know story of losing his virginity to a South African prostitute and culminate with his over-the-moon marriage to attorney Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert; TV success with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel and Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper; and his struggles with booze, which ended in 1979, religion and his health.
Nearing 70 and beset in recent years by a series of maladies and operations that have robbed from him parts of his face and the ability to speak (he was a celebrated conversationalist), eat and drink (he was prodigiously accomplished at both) and to take long walks in foreign cities (London and Venice, most romantically), the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and television star has crafted a beautiful book, which is scheduled to hit bookstores Tuesday.
Yes, there is some here that any frequent visitor to his hugely popular blog (rogerebert.com) will find familiar, for that is where this book started to take shape. “I didn’t intend for (my blog) to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way,” he writes in “Life Itself,” further explaining: “Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog form. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.”
Indeed, there is a lot in “Life Itself” that was not on the blog but a great deal of that is well-known to me too. I have read, known, admired and worked with Ebert over more than 30 years, and so every few pages I come across familiar places and people. There is my father, Herman, on page 139, the editor who published some of Ebert’s first stories in the Daily News and later facilitated his being hired at the Sun-Times, and my mother, Marilew (misspelled as Marilou, but if she were still alive she wouldn’t care and so neither do I), in a few places. There is the gang at O’Rourke’s, the North Avenue writers hangout, so powerfully evoked that one can almost hear bygone conversations and the tinkle of ice against glasses. There’s a great tale about our mutual Sun-Times pal Paul Galloway and some nice words about my current Tribune colleague Monica Eng.
Studs Terkel, whom Ebert says he first met at a party at my parents’ apartment, gets his own chapter in which Ebert calls him “the greatest man I knew,” as do lesser-known people as the late Sun-Times editor Bob Zonka and livelier-than-ever newspaperman John McHugh. Mike Royko makes a brief appearance, as does Oprah Winfrey (“Although some strange stories have gone around, it is not true to say that Oprah and I ever dated,” Ebert writes) and Eppie Lederer (aka Ann Landers), who was there when Roger met his wife and who once was refused admission to an AA meeting that Ebert wanted her to attend (for research only, since Eppie did not drink, ever).
I knew them all, a couple better than did Ebert, and they come to life on these pages with their personalities intact. McHugh and Zonka are so affectionately sketched that readers will be delighted to make their acquaintance; Bill Nack, too, Ebert’s college paper buddy and a noted sportswriter.
This is not a book of boldface names and racy anecdotes. Ebert devotes far more space to some of his colleagues on his college paper, the Daily Illini, and even to his boyhood dog Blackie, than to Roeper, his TV partner for eight years in the wake of Siskel’s 1999 death. There is no mention of the current incarnation of his television show, “Ebert Presents At The Movies” (for which I have occasionally provided Ebert a voice for his reviews; Bill Kurtis does the heavy voice-over lifting for Ebert on the show) but a great deal about Steak&Shake, the fast-food chain (“If I were on death row, my last meal would be from Steak&Shake”).
His affection for his wife of nearly 20 years and her extended family peppers the book, and his love is palpable: “My life as an independent adult began after I met Chaz.”
He expresses his gratitude for her indefatigable devotion during his operations and rehabilitations, writing: “I was very sick. ... This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. ... Her love was like a wind pushing me from the grave.”
The other great relationship of his adult life was, of course, with Siskel. Together this unlikely pair — neither possessing, shall we say, conventional TV good looks — partnered in 1975 on a monthly public-TV program called “Opening at a Theater Near You” and created the thumbs up/thumbs down enterprise that made them rich, powerful and famous. He shares lively and funny stories about Siskel. Though their on-air chemistry was deemed by the public more contentious than it actually was, Ebert summarizes the relationship thusly: “How meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.”
Of the hundreds of actors and directors Ebert has known and interviewed we get but a few. Lee Marvin, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum — a testosterone-heavy trio — each get a chapter, of the book’s 55, in which Ebert captures them vividly and memorably.
Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Woody Allen, Russ Meyer, Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman are the directors about whom Ebert chooses to write, and he does so incisively. It will surely surprise readers that Meyer, hardly as acclaimed as the others, is the star of this group. Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s 1970 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and the story for one of his later films (which I favorably reviewed for the Sun-Times in 1979, by the way). He calls Meyer a “friend for a lifetime” and hilariously recounts the pair’s attempts to collaborate on a movie with the Sex Pistols, the notorious British punk band.
There has never been any question that Ebert is an elegant writer, and the book is filled with examples, such as this description of an evening with Chaz: “Romance in the winter in Venice is intimate and private, almost hushed. One night we went to the Municipal Casino, carefully taking only as much money as we were ready to lose, and lost it. In a little restaurant we had enough left for spaghetti with two plates and afterward lacked even the fare for the canal bus. We walked the long way back through the night and cold, our arms around each other, figures appearing out of the fog, lights traced on the wet stones, pausing now and again to kiss and be solemn.”
The first movie Ebert ever saw was “A Day at the Races” and he has not seen his last. Even in the face of his current condition, there is no self-pity here. He knows that he has been a lucky man and led, thanks to a large amount of ambition and talent, a terrific life. “I remember everything,” he writes, and though “everything” is not in this book, good for him and good for us.