Roger Ebert: Thumbs Up to Life
12/06/2010 at 01:00 AM EST
She'd held his hand through these hospital doors before, more times than either likes to remember, offering encouragement, care and love in the face of his long illness. So when Chaz Ebert entered Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital in early October with a case of appendicitis, husband Roger was at her side to respond in kind. "Roger was beaming," says Chaz. "He was just so thrilled to be able to take care of me."
Four years after cancer in his jaw and subsequent surgeries almost took his life-and permanently robbed him of his ability to speak-Roger Ebert considers himself a lucky man. At 68, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, who gained fame as the cohost of the TV show At the Movies, is cancer-free, more prolific than ever and busily preparing for a return to television. He credits his wife of 18 years with making his comeback possible. "Chaz and I have drawn so close through all of this," says Roger, who communicates by tapping out his thoughts on a laptop and then relaying them with a computerized voice he calls Alex. "When I was essentially helpless, she was my tireless advocate."
She still is. In January Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies will premiere on PBS stations nationwide, with Chaz serving as producer. The show marks a return to Roger's TV roots, following a format created 35 years ago when Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, also a Chicago newspaper critic, first sparred across the theater aisle. Though two other critics will now handle the primary reviewers' roles, Roger will appear weekly in a segment called "Roger's Office," taped at his five-story Chicago brownstone, during which he will use his computerized voice. "Roger still has so much to say," says Chaz. "And the fact that there is a way for him to say it is a wonderful thing."
As for how his changed face-the result of three surgeries to rebuild his jaw-will be received by viewers, Ebert is unconcerned. "This is how I look," he says. "After my surgery I was advised not to go to Ebertfest, my film festival, because paparazzi would take pictures of my bandages. I said, 'To hell with it.' We spend too much time hiding illness. I've heard from so many people who have been disfigured in some way, and they have the same attitude. They want to get on with life."
That feedback from his fans-particularly through his blog at roger ebert.com and on Facebook and Twitter-has served as a lifeline through illness and recovery. "Before I got sick, I never really knew who my readers were," he says. "But they are located all over the world. Our daily conversations energize me."
With the hospital bed now behind him, Ebert's days are busy ones. He attends film screenings, writes reviews, works on his memoirs, goes for long walks in the park with Chaz and cherishes time spent with his four grandchildren. (Chaz has two children from a previous marriage.) Despite having to feed himself a liquid diet five times a day through a tube inserted into his stomach, he even published a new cookbook, The Pot and How to Use It. "I've been working on that cookbook in my mind for 10 years," he says. "It's not a gourmet cookbook; it's more of a how-to book." No matter the subject, says Roger, "I still love to write. Very simply, it gives me my voice back."
Although guilty pleasures are no longer an option when the couple dine out with friends-"I miss pizza and anything from Steak 'N Shake," he laments-good conversation is. Often, though, the pair will stay in, watching DVDs in their home theater. The Eberts know that Roger's cancer might someday return-a threat he faces with his usual grounded optimism. "There are no guarantees," he says. "But there is also nothing to fear. We come from oblivion when we are born. We return to oblivion when we die. The astonishing thing is this period of in-between."