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Sun Times Movie Critic Roger Ebert works at his computer in his home on the north side of Chicago. (Eric Y. Exit/The Canadian Press)
Sun Times Movie Critic Roger Ebert works at his computer in his home on the north side of Chicago. (Eric Y. Exit/The Canadian Press)

The Interview: Roger Ebert

You couldn't write this script Add to ...

'I just now arranged it," the computer voice named Alex says. Roger Ebert looks up from his Mac laptop, where he types his comments before they are spoken by the voice.

He's talking about his snow-white hair.

"I'm sure you did," chides Chaz Ebert, his wife of 18 years. "I can tell," she says from across the living room of their five-level townhouse in Chicago's handsome Lincoln Park neighbourhood. She prefers his hair combed more neatly.

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Sun Times Movie Critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz hug in his office of their home on the north side of Chicago.

The room fills with the tap-tap of Mr. Ebert's two-finger typing. We wait in silence to hear what he wants to say.

"My hair doesn't change," the voice says. Mr. Ebert cocks his head, as if puzzled by the fuss over his appearance.

"Yes, it does," Ms. Ebert asserts, laughing lightly.

Tap, tap again. "Charles, do you like it slicked down?" the voice asks the photographer.

Everyone laughs. The man known as the world's most recognized film critic - Mr. Thumbs Up - is asking for a review of his hair?

This is a story about the unexpected - surprising expressions of love and humour; unplanned twists of life; a perseverance no one could have foreseen; a philosophical outlook, which many don't know they have until circumstances provoke it.

In 2006, Mr. Ebert, who never smoked, underwent his first surgery in his eight-year battle against thyroid and salivary gland cancer.

In three ensuing operations - attempts at reconstruction and one emergency operation to stop a hemorrhage - he lost the ability to eat, drink or speak. Surgeons still hold out the possibility of restoring his voice, at least partly. He has refused. "Three failed surgeries are enough," he says.

Now cancer-free, the 68-year-old walks with his wife in a local park, drives, visits friends and goes about his daily routine of e-mailing, tweeting, blogging and reviewing films for the Chicago Sun Times, where he has been employed for 44 years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

Interviewing Mr. Ebert is like talking to an oracle, hidden behind a veil. His eyes - the way he uses them to express curiosity, intrigue, surprise, wonderment or compassion - are often a better tool than his hastily-typed words.

He can hold his mouth in a cherubic smile, but often it drops open, and when it does, his upper teeth are visible, but otherwise, there's only blackness. And one realizes that the blackness is the top of the turtleneck he wears to cover the bandages on his neck.

He has only a partial jaw. Where his lower teeth, tongue, and the floor of his mouth used to be, there's a hole.



The decision to show his face to the world began with his blog, which he started in 2008 as part of his convalescence. It clocked 98 million visits in 12 months, earning him a Webby for Person of the Year.

"When I determined to go to Eberfest [his annual film festival in his Illinois home town of Champaign-Urbana]despite looking like this, some people told me not to go because the tabloids would eat it up. I said, 'To hell with that,'" he writes on his computer. "I wrote a piece saying that this was the way I looked and it was a fact of illness. I got lots of responses from readers who were coping with looking unusual one way or another."



For 23 years he co-hosted a movie-review TV show with Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Now, he is launching a new show about the movies. The pilot is currently in circulation with networks, says Ms. Ebert, who is the producer.

At first, Mr. Ebert "said adamantly, 'No'" about appearing onscreen, she says. But he has changed his mind. "I believe in this show and will do anything to help it," he types.

He is also about to publish a cookbook, The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker. "I think I was somewhat frustrated by not being able to eat, and I wanted to live vicariously," he explained in a recent blog post. He is sustained through a feeding tube in his abdomen with nutrients prepared by a live-in nurse, Millie.

Most comfortable when positioned at a 45-degree angle in his automated recliner chair, he walks slowly when he moves about the house, his body rigid and a bit lumpy, after attempted-reconstruction surgeries that removed tissue from his back and shoulder. He wears his wedding ring on his middle finger; his ring finger is now too thin.



Mr. Ebert's mind is fluid and colourful behind the disability - a film without a projector. He raps the surface of the table when he wants someone's attention. Or he gives his wife the signal - a hand opening and closing like a beak - to tell me a story about something too complex for him to describe quickly in print.



"The computer writes what I type and sometimes gets it wrong," he jokes. Earlier this year, he started working with a Scottish firm, CereProc, that used commentary tracks Mr. Ebert had recorded for DVD releases to recreate his voice on computer. He lets me hear a sample, which he feels is still too murky. As a lark, when asked if his own voice simulation is part of an attempt at identity recovery, he answers by playing a computer voice of a woman speaking Spanish.



But if he's as present as he always was, there's a part of Mr. Ebert that is altered, that speaks from the other side of a near-death experience.



"It doesn't involve courage at all," he writes about his outlook. "What choice do you have? … What illness requires is acceptance. …



"Yes, I was [initially]depressed," he continues.



It was his wife, a former lawyer, who saved him. "I had a deep, deep feeling that it wasn't his time to go and that I had to fight for him," she offers lightly.



They have been together for more than 20 years, since he spied her in a restaurant and asked his dinner companion, relationship columnist Ann Landers, to approach her on his behalf. "A crisis like this truly tests you," he writes when asked how their relationship has deepened. "I already knew she had the right stuff. I'm sorry my illness made her have to prove it."



Ms. Ebert looks at him. "I never know what he's going to say in interviews," she confides quietly.



Tap, tap, tap. "Do you agree?" her husband asks her.



"Yes," she responds directly to him. "Except that you don't have to worry about your illness making me have to prove it. It's done things for both of us."



"You went though hell," he writes.



"Not anything compared to what you went through," she replies. The illness has accentuated qualities he always had. "One of the things I learned early on was that he has an adaptability gene that helps him roll with the punches," she says.



But it has also made him more philosophical. I ask him about a comment he has made - that the purpose of life is to contribute joy to the world. "You live and learn," he types, his eyes like saucers, eyebrows arched.



"That makes me tear up," says his wife, crying now. "Roger has always been kind and generous, and he was, and still is, very competitive and he has a very strong work ethic … but he is not a touchy-feely type of person. That is a fundamental shift in how he sees things."



The afternoon winds down, after a tour of his cluttered second-floor office, his bedroom, where he sleeps surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of alphabetically organized books, the art they've collected together - Australian aboriginal art, African masks, works by 19th-century illustrator Edward Lear, photographic pieces by David Hiscock, abstracts by Gillian Ayres.



At one point, I wonder what he would say if he were granted his voice temporarily. He plays a spoken version of the e e cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town, lifting his hands to the cadence of the male voice, as if conducting an orchestra.



"He would recite that poem by heart all the time," Ms. Ebert says. "And he says he has never found a voice that speaks it better than he could."



The movie of Roger Ebert's life is like that now - poignant, inspirational, a tear-jerker and funny, too. I ask whether his live-in nurse has had to deal with any significant medical issues since he came home from hospital the last time in 2008.



"No," his wife replies for him.



Tap, tap, tap comes his reply: "Chaz keeps Millie busy sorting out my hair."

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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