Roger Ebert debuts his new voice on 'Oprah'

Maureen Ryan
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Four years ago, one of the most famous voices in the entertainment industry was silenced. On Tuesday's "Oprah Winfrey Show," film critic Roger Ebert's voice was finally heard again.

A high-tech program created by Scottish company CereProc used Ebert's DVD commentaries to create a synthetic version of his voice, which Ebert used for the first time on "Oprah" to "talk" via his computer.

Ebert, 68, has been battling cancer for eight years, and for the last few years, he hasn't been able to eat, drink or speak.

But he certainly hasn't lost the ability to communicate — far from it. Via his blog, Twitter and his prodigious review output for the Chicago Sun-Times, he has once again proved himself to be one of the most productive critics around. He's also one of the most beloved; when he walked out on Winfrey's stage, he got a standing ovation.

For the Tuesday interview, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, joined Winfrey in her Chicago studio, but the part of the interview in which he unveiled his new voice was shot in the couple's Chicago town house.

"It still needs improvement, but at least it sounds like me," Ebert's computer said when it "spoke." "In first grade, they said I talked too much. And now I still can."

As Ebert "talked" for the first time since July 1, 2006 (the date of the surgery that destroyed his ability to speak), Chaz wiped away tears.

"I actually think it's incredible; it's incredible that that's your voice," Chaz said. "Roger, what do you think?"

"Uncanny. A good feeling," he answered.

The new voice did sound a lot like the Ebert that TV audiences heard on his many movie review programs, including the various incarnations of the show he hosted with the late Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. However, for much of the "Oprah" interview, Ebert used a more standard computer voice, which sounded a bit like Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Ebert said he couldn't recall his last words.

"I probably spoke them to Chaz as they wheeled me out to the operating room," he said. "They were probably, 'I love you.' At least I hope those were my last words. On the other hand, they may have been, 'Good morning, doctor.'" He said he often dreamed of frosty root beers shared with his father.

"In my dreams, I'm talking all the time," he said.

Ebert and Winfrey, who are old friends, discussed his day-to-day life since his cancer diagnosis, and the show chronicled a typical day for the Eberts, which involved three film screenings, a meeting about a possible TV project and a lot of writing for Roger.

These days, Ebert is cancer-free, and he has ruled out any future surgeries.

"This is the way I look, and my life is happy and productive, so why have any more surgery?" Ebert said, before moving on to this year's Oscar race.





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