Ebert: Not just a critic, but a part of Hollywood

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LOS ANGELES — Roger Ebert could be tough on filmmakers, but unlike many critics, he earned their respect.

So much so that they claimed him as one of their own when the Directors Guild of America made Ebert an honorary lifetime member at the group’s awards ceremony four years ago.

What better testimony for a life’s work in a profession that typically draws sneers from filmmakers and fans alike? But then Ebert, who died Thursday at age 70, was not just any critic. He was THE critic.

At the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967 and through decades as a pioneering film reviewer on television, Ebert championed tiny gems that he scouted out at film festivals and took Hollywood’s biggest names to task when they missed the mark.

Ebert drew his own criticism that the thumbs-up, thumbs-down trademark of his TV shows over-simplified the way we look at films. Yet with his chubby frame and thick-rimmed glasses, he popularized the notion of the dweebish critic as arbiter of cultural taste, inspiring a generation of TV and online reviewers much as Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of investigative journalists.

Ebert’s criticism earned him a Pulitzer in 1975, and he wrote more than 20 books that included two volumes of essays on classic movies. He hung out with filmmakers from Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman to Billy Wilder and Mel Brooks. He was the first critic given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 1975, Ebert and Gene Siskel, film critic for the rival Chicago Tribune, teamed for a show that began on Chicago’s PBS station, then went nationwide — the two trading opinions on new movies from a set resembling a theater balcony. They continued their TV partnership with a syndicated show, each giving thumbs up or down on the films and engaging in lively sparring matches on air even as they remained close friends off camera.

Ebert continued the show with Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999. In early 2011, Ebert launched a new show, “Ebert Presents At the Movies.” It had new hosts, but featured Ebert in his own segment, “Roger’s Office.” He used a chin prosthesis and enlisted voice-over guests to read his reviews.

While some called Ebert an inspiration, he told The Associated Press in an email in January 2011 that bravery and courage “have little to do with it.”

Knopfler scraps Russian gigs over ‘crackdown’

LONDON — Guitarist Mark Knopfler has canceled two shows in Russia in protest over what he says is a crackdown on human rights groups in the country.

The former Dire Straits frontman is scrapping the June gigs in Moscow and St. Petersburg following raids on the Russian offices of groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, according to a post on his website today.

Russian authorities raided hundreds of non-governmental organizations last month to make sure they comply with a law requiring many of them to register as “foreign agents.”

The government says the law is designed to curb foreign meddling, but critics say it is intended to stifle dissent.

Knopfler had planned to play in Moscow on June 7 and in St. Petersburg a day later.

For ailing Valerie Harper, love’s still all around

LOS ANGELES — It turns out “The Last Show” wasn’t the last, after all.

Just around the corner from the intersection of Mary Tyler Moore Avenue and Newhart Street at CBS Studio Center, actress Mary Tyler Moore and some of her former colleagues gathered Thursday afternoon for a press conference to discuss their first sitcom appearance together since “The Last Show,” the title of the 1977 series finale of the groundbreaking “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Moore, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Georgia Engel and the ailing Valerie Harper reunited this week to tape an episode of White’s hit TV Land comedy, “Hot in Cleveland.”

On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Harper played the free-spirited best friend Rhoda Morgenstern opposite Moore’s prim Mary Richards.

Harper, 73, wondered if the group had come together again because of her recent diagnosis with terminal brain cancer.

“Do you guys think this was part of my condition?” asked Harper.

“Oh, yes. I do,” replied co-star Leachman, who portrayed Mary and Rhoda’s snooty apartment-building manager, Phyllis Lindstrom. “They had the idea and they wrote this amazing script,” Leachman continued. “We’re just almost in tears, we’re so thrilled.”

Harper recently told the “Today” show that in January she was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer and told she had three months to live. But, on this day, Harper was robust. “I’m kind of symptomless for this particular condition, so we’re just going to see,” she explained.

Harper said this reunion has been more about laughter than tears, in spite of her diagnosis. “And the tears come up, but they’re part of the laughter,” she noted. “Did you ever laugh ‘til you cry?”

This group has reunited before, in 2007 to present at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and for a 2008 episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But this is the ensemble’s first acting job together in some 36 years. Coincidentally, it’s taking place on the same studio lot their Emmy-winning series was filmed between 1970 and 1977.

The actresses won’t be playing their “Mary Tyler Moore Show” characters on the “Hot in Cleveland” episode, which is scheduled to air Sept. 4. The storyline has Elka (White) and Mamie Sue (frequent guest star Engel) reuniting with their long-lost bowling teammates: Diane (Moore), Peg (Leachman) and Angie (Harper). While the characters names are different, each will provide a nod to the roles the actresses played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“(Rhoda) taught me to thank your lucky stars for a fabulous friend,” Harper noted, referring to Mary Richards and pointing to Moore and laughing.

Both the first “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the new “Hot in Cleveland” episodes are titled “Love is All Around,” and that seemed to be the case at this press conference.

“We don’t have to fake it,” Moore said.

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