Roger Ebert, the popular film critic and television co-host who along with his fellow reviewer and sometime sparring partner Gene Siskel could lift or sink the fortunes of a movie with their trademark thumbs up or thumbs down, died on Thursday in Chicago. He was 70.

His death was announced by the Chicago Sun-Times, where he had worked for more than 40 years. No cause was specified, but he had suffered from cancer and related health problems since 2002.

It would not be a stretch to say that Ebert was the best-known film reviewer of his generation, and one of the most trusted. Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw.

US President Barack Obama reacted to Ebert’s death with a statement that said, in part: “For a generation of Americans—especially Chicagoans—Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive—capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical."

Ebert’s struggle with cancer gave him an altogether different public image—as someone who refused to surrender to illness.

In recent years, Ebert became a prolific presence on Facebook and Twitter, on which he had more than 800,000 followers, and was a blogger as well.

Ebert liked to say his approach—dryly witty, occasionally sarcastic, sometimes quirky in his opinions—reflected the working newspaper reporter he had been, not a formal student of film.

In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his Sun-Times reviews. In 2005, he became the first film critic to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“In the century or so that there has been such a thing as film criticism, no other critic has ever occupied the space held by Roger Ebert," Mick LaSalle, movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in 2010. With Siskel, Ebert popularized television film criticism. Their collaboration began in 1975. Ebert was asked to appear on WTTW, the public broadcasting station in Chicago, as co-host of a new movie review programme. He was intrigued but then taken aback when told that Siskel, the film critic of the Chicago Tribune, would be his partner.

But the pairing worked. The show, originally titled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You", was a public television hit. It evolved into “Sneak Previews", which went national when the Public Broadcasting Service began carrying it in 1978. It eventually attracted more viewers than any other entertainment series in the history of public television.

Most people knew the two as intellectually engaged, sweater-wearing, often contentious men sitting in cozy theatre chairs ad-libbing about a film’s strengths and weaknesses. Ebert was the larger one with the owlish eyeglasses, Siskel the taller one who was losing his hair.

For all their combativeness, however, they actually agreed on a movie’s worth much more often than they differed.

Siskel died of a brain tumour in 1999 at 53. Afterward, the show was renamed “Roger Ebert & the Movies" and began rotating co-hosts as a way of auditioning them.

Roger Joseph Ebert, an only child, was born on 18 June 1942 in Urbana, Illinois, to Walter Ebert and the former Annabel Stumm. The first movie he saw was the 1937 Marx Brothers comedy, A Day at the Races, at the Princess Theater in Urbana.

Although his knowledge of film was limited, he was named the Sun-Times’ first movie critic in 1967, when he was 24; newspapers at the time wanted young film critics to speak to the young audiences.

Ebert’s books included the Great Movies essay collections, a memoir, Life Itself, and a book of reviews titled I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.

In July 1992, Ebert married Chaz Hammelsmith, who survives him.

Just two days before his death, Ebert announced he intended to write reviews only of films he wanted to review. He said he would recruit others to do the rest, saying he was taking “a leave of presence".

©2013/The New York Times

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