By Mark Deming
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.
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.”