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Time keeps on slip, slip, slippin' away

1s&e.jpgI sense it's about time to share some of my thoughts about television and movie critics, myself, and the past, present and future of my corner of the critics-on-TV adventure. My friends A .O. Scott and Michael Phillips are well into their first season as the new co-hosts of "At the Movies." Richard Roeper just announced he will be streaming reviews on his web site, and they will re-run a week later on the Starz cable channel. I wish them all good fortune. And good health.

This act of the saga began for me with a call from good Dr. Havey, who had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that I had thyroid cancer. The good news was that it was the most common kind, which is usually curable by the peculiar treatment of surgery, followed by tossing back a shot glass of radioactive iodine, being isolated for 48 hours and not sitting next to any pregnant women for a month. Enough about that. It worked.

The thyroid removal surgery left me with a slight speech impediment which I tried to deal with by punching out words more forcibly. One side of my mouth drooped a little, and it was recklessly reported online that I'd had a stroke. Diagnosis by video. No such thing.

Follow-up x-rays revealed I had salivary gland cancer, very slow-growing, which had returned after surgery 15 years, as I was told it probably would. I had surgery again in July 2006. Saying goodbye to Chaz in the hospital room were be the last words I would ever speak.

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It was said reconstructive surgery would restore my speech and repair my face. I had three such surgeries. Twice it worked, and Chaz held a mirror so I could regard my face as it had been. All three times, as the doctors say, "it fell apart." No need for additional details. They did their very best.

It became clear I might never return to Ebert & Roeper in a speaking role. I had other ideas for participation. Richard Roeper carried on with guest co-hosts, some of whom had also done me the same favor after Gene Siskel's death in 1999. Our long-standing producer and director, Don Dupree, coordinated this, obviously with a look for good long-term candidates.

I believed that such as Michael Phillips, A .O. Scott, Christy Lemire, Kim Morgan, Lisa Schwartzbaum and a few others were good hopes. Roeper and Dupree thought so too. Most of the guest hosts were possibilities for the permanent job. Certain potential guests were suggested to us by friends. Many agreed, One popular recommendation however said she just wasn't interested in doing TV.

Disney in Burbank, who had been a good company to work with, now had a younger generation less impressed with our history. (We were Disney's first show in syndication, and therefore its longest-running.) The studio was concerned about improving its demographics in younger age segments. After Roeper and I announced we were leaving, Disney had Phillips shoot test segments with Ben Lyons, a young Los Angeles celeb-TV personality. Phillips was a good sport; he was essentially helping to choose his replacement. I heard Lyons was pretty much at sea in debates with him. In way, he wasn't to blame; he'd been recruited despite Dupree's incredulity for a job he was obviously unsuited for, but the infatuated Disney producer was dangling a prize plum.

Ben Lyons at that time had never published a single movie review, and to my knowledge still never has. To put him in my seat was a mistake, and it was not well-received. A full-page story in the Los Angeles Times displayed a huge thumbs-down -- not the opinion of the writer, but the general opinion. I wrote a blog entry, "Roger's Little Rule Book," that never mentioned a critic by name, but...

Our new Disney executive from Burbank had other new ideas. She looked at the balcony set at ABC/Chicago, one of the most iconic set ideas in the history of television history, which had survived for more than half of the life of the medium, and decided it needed to be replaced. Now workers tore at our set with sledge-hammers, and it collected in a dumpster in the alley. It was replaced by two sets, one resembling a demo counter at a trade show, the other two nice chairs at an Admirals' Club. (Siskel advised me 25 years ago to buy a Lifetime Pass to that club for, as I recall, $200 at the time. He gave me a lot of useful advice. When I pull out that ancient piece of plastic at a club, I'm treated as if I were George Clooney with his Titanium Pass in "Up in the Air.")

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The first Ben & Ben season did not start well. "Roger," an ABC/Chicago friend called and said, "the first taping is this afternoon, and right now they're repainting the sets. They didn't like the color." Those sets could have been painted like Joseph's amazing dreamcoat and they would have been the same crappy sets.

The show's reviews were not kind. Two websites opened to catalogue Lyon's lapses. I e-mailed Mankiewicz in sympathy, comparing him to the victim of a drive-by shooting. That he remained polite and supportive throughout the ordeal is the mark of a gentleman. I was nowhere near that nice to Siskel, and I loved him.

It was clear that the two Bens would have to go. Roeper and my wife Chaz and I had announced a new show. Would Disney simply pull the plug on theirs and walk away? What, and vacate the "At the Movies" time slots for us to try to grab? Unlikely. Time slots are like chess pieces.

The studio announced the hiring of -- why, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips, of all people! Michael courteously came over to our house to inform us personally. I e-mailed my congratulations to them both, and in our living room enthusiastically told Michael I would bring back the Thumbs and give the show my endorsement. Disney turned down my offer, explaining that the show had "moved on." That was a sad day for me.

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Watching Michael and Tony on the show, I felt sorry for them being deprived of the famous set. It would have felt creepy to see Ben Lyons in one of our seats, but Scott and Phillips deserved better. It was sad to see them working on a set which, for all of the paint jobs, looked better suited to a couple of earnest preachers on Sunday morning. TV loved the movie balcony illusion. Now we no longer understand why they're sitting like that. There's no screen for them to look at. Why then are they at such an awkward angle, instead of sitting more conversationally?

We were not blowing smoke about our new show. Gathering up Richard, Michael and Christy Lemire (the Associated Press film critic), Chaz and I seemed to have found a welcome at a major syndicator. Unfortunately, its president left. I suspect, but do not know, we fell victim to the ancient Hollywood custom that a new executive must clean house by throwing out his predecessor's projects. Perhaps there was more to it than that. They treated us honestly and fairly, but it was not to be. At about that time, the economy went into free-fall. Roeper & Phillips & Lemire was the show that was never to be.

Now here we stand. Chaz and I still have plans. We still love Christy. She and Chris just had baby boy Nic. Don Dupree has caught fire as assistant news director of CBS/Chicago, helping them to a recent ratings surge. Richard has announced his own plans for his web reviews and Starz. Good luck, buddy.

I confess I felt a twinge that Rob Feder's column quoted you: "As much as I loved doing 'Ebert & Roeper,' this will have much more of an unfiltered, uncut, viral feel. As someone at Starz put it, they wanted 'Roeper uncut.' If a film is a piece of shit, I'll say it's a piece of shit."

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Richard, were you not uncut at E&R? Did you never say a movie was "a piece of shit?" On the web and cable you can use that very word, of course, as you do in your web site's promo for your new enterprise, promising to review "a lot of big movies, and some smaller, shitty ones as well."

Things are better. Ben Lyons has returned to celebrities. Ben Mankiewicz is still at Turner Classic Movies and will prevail. Scott and Phillips are doing exactly what we all advised Disney two years ago they should be doing. Everybody still has the day job.

I still can't speak aloud, but I have the dear Sun-Times and write more than ever. When I try to put things in context, I remember Olympia Dukakis's wise dialogue in Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck." Her husband thinks he's been getting away with cheating on her, and she tells him: "I just want you to know no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else."

[Nov. 30, 2009: I have removed a reference to Disney nixing donation of the set to the Smithsonian. That may have been incorrect.] 

As is so often the case, Rob Feder broke the Richard Roeper story.

In a time of shifting sands for movie critics, Roger's Little Rule Book.

Christy Lemire and Richard Roeper disagree about "Lucky You" .

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Kim Morgan joins David Poland and friends for food and a discussion of "Ingluorious Basterds." A variation on Siskel's "I'd rather see a documentary of the same actors having lunch." Few crickets would leave that much food on the table.

 

Lisa Schwartzbaum and Owen Gliberman of ET disagree on Bruno and sex itself.

 

Ben Mankiewicz on his third day on the new job.

 

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