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How I gave Oprah her start

Talk show mega-star Oprah Winfrey and Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert go way back. This photo is from 1986, when they co-hosted the Chicago Emmy Awards.

Ever since Oprah Winfrey revealed on her 20th anniversary program Monday that I was the person who first suggested she go into syndication, I have been flooded with requests for interviews.

Yes, it is true, I persuaded Oprah to become the most successful and famous woman in the world. I was also the person who suggested that Jerry Springer not go into syndication, for which I have received too little credit.

All of these years I have maintained a discreet silence about my role as Oprah's adviser, but now that she has spilled the beans, the time is right to tell the whole story.

It begins early one morning in Baltimore, where Gene Siskel and I are scheduled to appear on a morning talk show hosted by a newcomer named Oprah Winfrey. The other guests on the show include a vegetarian chef, and four dwarfs dressed as chipmunks, who will sing "The Chipmunk Christmas Song" while dancing with Hula-Hoops.

Don't laugh at the chipmunks

We are all standing in the wings. Siskel is staring straight ahead, in fierce concentration. "Whatever you do," he whispers, "don't look at the chipmunks. I know you too well. You'll start to laugh, and that will make me start to laugh, and we'll never be able to stop."

Following his example, I stare straight ahead in fierce concentration. I focus on the vegetarian chef. He is showing Oprah how to blend zucchini to make delicious zucchini bread for the holidays. He knocks over the blender, which sprays pureed zucchini all over the interview couch. Then it is time for the commercial break.

Oprah does exactly what I would do in the same situation, and turns over the cushions on the couch. She wipes off the back of the couch with a copy of the Baltimore Sun, and says, "OK, boys, sit down and don't mention the zucchini." We sit down. During the interview I feel zucchini dripping into my shoes. The chipmunks are laughing so hard about the zucchini that they may not be able to sing "The Chipmunk Christmas Song."

I realize during this show that Oprah Winfrey is a natural on television, although she could use a better booker.

A few months later, the job of hosting "AM Chicago" opened up. I remember being the guest host one morning. My guest was Sophia Loren. She was promoting her new perfume. I'm not sure, but I think it was named "Sophia." I don't know much about perfume, but it was an opportunity to learn.

"What do you make the perfume from?" I asked Miss Loren.

"Make it?" she said. "What from?"

"Like flowers or stuff?"

"I don't make it myself, you know," she said. "I don't stir it up."

"No, but I just thought --"

"It doesn't matter what goes into it, as long as it smells so nice," she said.

I have found this a valuable rule over the years.

Oprah Winfrey was hired away from the Baltimore station to host "AM Chicago." It was opposite the top-rated Phil Donahue. Within a few weeks, Phil Donahue was no longer top-rated. Oprah's show was expanded to an hour and became a smash hit.

Simple math

At about this time, Oprah and I went out on a date. Well, actually two dates, but the one that made history began when we went to the movies. Afterward, we went to the Hamburger Hamlet for dinner, my treat.

"I don't know what to do," she told me. "The ABC stations want to syndicate my show. So does King World. The problem with syndication is that if your show isn't successful, you're off the air in three months. The ABC stations own themselves, so they can keep you on. Which way do you think I should go?"

I took a napkin and a ballpoint pen, and made some simple calculations.

Line 1: How much I made in a year for doing a syndicated television show.

Line 2: Times 2, because Siskel made the same.

Line 3: Times 2, because Oprah would be on for an hour, instead of half an hour.

Line 4: Times 5, because she would be on five days a week.

Line 5: Times 2, because her ratings would be at least twice as big as "Siskel & Ebert."

I pushed the napkin across the table. Oprah studied it for 10 seconds.

"Rog, I'm going with King World," she said.

With simple high-school level math, you can now figure out how much Oprah Winfrey makes in a year for her show:

Step 1: Estimate how much I made in a year, 20 years ago.

Step 2: Carry out the other multiplications described above.

Step 3: Times 20.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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