MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.
I was born inside the movie of my life. Those words open the new memoir titled "Life Itself" from the film critic Roger Ebert who has made movies his life for more than four decades now. He and his sparring partner, the late Gene Siskel, had the most famous thumbs on television.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SISKEL & EBERT")
ROGER EBERT: Two very enthusiastic thumbs up for the hilarious comedy "A Fish Called Wanda."
BLOCK: Now, at age 69, Roger Ebert depends on that same gesture to help him communicate in daily life. Five years ago, he lost the ability to speak after multiple cancer surgeries.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
BLOCK: Roger Ebert leads me slowly through his Chicago townhouse. On the glass door of his office, gold letters spell out: The Ebert Company Limited, Fine Film Criticism Since 1967. On the wall, the Pulitzer Prize he won in 1975. He was the first film critic ever to win one. And Ebert points with delight to a manual L.C. Smith and Corona typewriter on a shelf. He scribbles a message in a small spiral notebook: 1966. Bought it for $25. Wow.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: You just wrote: Used it until 1980s when I got a Tandy, the first computer.
Roger Ebert still churns out half a dozen reviews every week, and typing has become his means of speech
EBERT: This is Alex, a voice that came built into my computer.
BLOCK: Ebert speaks through Alex, a text-to-voice program. He types, Alex speaks the words. And the words flow at a remarkable rate, given that he laboriously hunts and pecks with just two fingers across the keyboard.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)
BLOCK: I sat down to talk with Roger Ebert and his wife, Chaz, and asked him to conjure up his first movie memory. He was 3 years old in Urbana, Illinois. It was the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races."
EBERT: The Marx Brothers seemed very strange to me and a little disturbing. Years later, I met Groucho, and he still seemed very strange and a little disturbing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: As Roger Ebert listens to Alex, he'll pantomime for emphasis to make up for what's been taken away. His eyes widen, he might tap his heart to signal I love you or thanks. Over the years, he has been treated for salivary gland cancer, then thyroid cancer, then cancer of the jawbone. After surgery, a carotid artery burst and he barely survived. Multiple reconstructive surgeries followed, but failed. Ebert has no lower jaw now. He can't eat or drink. He's fed through a gastric tube. He breathes through a tracheostomy, which took away his speech. He has a full-time, live-in nurse.
I came to talk with Roger Ebert about his life as a film critic and his life with illness. Because typing is a long and exhausting process for him, we agreed that I'd send some questions in advance. I wanted to know whether that pugnacious on-screen dynamic with Gene Siskel carried over off-screen too. Ebert made a fist and punched the air as Alex spoke his words.
EBERT: We were often angry with one another. At other times, we were very warm. I think we shared a strong sense of morality about films that offended us, either by their content or their general stupidity.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
EBERT: What we taught each other was how to defend our choices. Critics are tempted to think of themselves as oracles, and here was this guy getting right in my face and telling me I was wrong.
BLOCK: You write in the book about Gene Siskel's last television appearances with you before he died in 1999. He died of a brain tumor. You write: His pain must have been unimaginable. But you didn't talk about it. As close as you had been for all those years, you never talked about his illness. Why was that, do you think?
EBERT: We had philosophical discussions about life and death over many years. But after he got sick, Gene never, ever discussed his illness, except for the obvious fact that he was sick. The word cancer was never mentioned. I believe he was determined to defeat it. And he was such a competitor that he didn't want to acknowledge any weakness. I was never able to visit him in the hospital. He was intensely private about the situation. That was his decision. I respect it. I think perhaps it influence me to be very open about my own illness.
BLOCK: Roger Ebert writes in his memoir that when he first lost the ability to eat or drink, he became obsessed by tastes and smells, in particular, a frosty mug of root beer.
EBERT: Over and over, I would fantasize that icy cold root beer. I yearned for the pleasure of it trickling down my throat. I knew that would never happen again.
CHAZ EBERT: In the hospital, when we have visitors, he would direct us in playing this game.
BLOCK: This is Robert Ebert's wife, Chaz.
EBERT: We had to stand in line, and each one of us would have to describe which drink we would take. Not only say A&W Root Beer, but we would have to describe its properties and describe its effect on us as we were drinking it, describe the bubbles subtly dancing across the top of the liquid.
What he doesn't know is the reason he was having those so strongly is because it was a time that they weren't giving him enough nutrition in the hospital and his body was starving. And his brain turned on its survival mechanism and was forcing him to have these strong, intense memories about food in order to give him an appetite to eat.
EBERT: I didn't feel hunger, but my body knew.
BLOCK: Since his cancer and his surgeries, Roger Ebert has found a powerful new voice online. He tweets constantly. He's a prolific blogger with tens of thousands of followers. Many of his posts are deeply personal about his physical condition. Recently, he wrote about the humiliation of falling out of bed and being unable to get up. At first, he didn't want to disclose that. But he wrote: This blog has become a venue for my truths.
One of those truths was posting a photograph of his disfigured face. He leans toward me, his hands gesturing toward his face for emphasis, as he talks about it.
EBERT: I was advised not to be photographed looking like this. Well, it's how I look, and there's nothing I can do about it. We spend too much time as a society denying illness. It's a fact of life.
BLOCK: Chaz, did you and Roger talk about that?
EBERT: Yes, we did talk about it. He listened to people's advice, but he said, frankly, I don't give a damn if someone wants to take a photograph of me looking like this and sell it to the tabloids. And then we came upon the idea, let's take our own photograph and put it out there right now. And he sat at the piano and had his photograph taken and said - the headline was from a Martin Scorsese movie - I'm not a pretty boy anymore. And after that, it was defused.
BLOCK: Roger Ebert moves very slowly now and one shoulder is much smaller than the other. His body, as he puts it, was plundered for bone and tissue as surgeons tried multiple times to reconstruct his face.
EBERT: The surgeries caused more damage than the cancer.
BLOCK: Doctors have proposed to you a fourth reconstruction surgery. You're shaking your head no. You have said no. Why is that? Why have you said enough?
EBERT: I'm going to stop while I'm behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
EBERT: This is the face I have. I accept it.
BLOCK: And then Roger Ebert was off to the movies. The Toronto Film Festival beckoned. As he wrote on his blog: The movies, as they always do, will cheer and inspire me. They heal because they take me into the minds of their creators.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.