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Roger Ebert returns with new PBS review show

CHICAGO — Roger Ebert is returning to the small screen.

The famous film critic stopped appearing on television movie review shows in 2006 when cancer surgery left him unable to speak. But now he has his own segment on a new program, "Ebert Presents at the Movies." The weekly show debuts Friday on public television stations nationwide.

The show is necessary in today's entertainment world, Ebert says.

"Can you think of another TV show that deals with the movies as movies instead of as celebrity showcases?" Ebert says during an interview with The Associated Press at the Chicago television studio where the show is produced. His laptop computer speaks his typed answers.

"We don't praise everything," he says.

The show will feature co-hosts Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Ebert will use his computer voice for the segment "Roger's Office," which he says will focus on "reviews and rants."

The new show will be produced at Chicago's WTTW, where Ebert and Gene Siskel started taping "Sneak Previews" 35 years ago. The pair's iconic "two thumbs" (up or down) reviews became one of the most recognizable judgments in film criticism — and they'll be featured on the new show.

Ebert, 68, appeared with a series of co-hosts after Siskel died in 1999. A year later, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper joined him. Ebert had to leave television in 2006 when he had a cancerous growth removed from his salivary gland and later had emergency surgery after a blood vessel burst near the site of the operation.

He also had cancer surgery three times before the June operation — once in 2002 to remove a malignant tumor on his thyroid gland and twice on his salivary gland the next year.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times film critic says planning for the new show started in 2006 when he "was flat on my back. We had business meetings in the hospital."

But the meetings, says wife and co-producer Chaz Ebert, weren't top priority.

"The most important thing in the hospital was getting well," she says. "But it did give him something to look forward to, something to get out of that bed for and truth be told, there were some days when I could not have foreseen a day like this happening."

The day of the show's first full dress rehearsal is an emotional one for Chaz Ebert. She gets teary-eyed and says she sent thank you notes to everyone who helped the couple.

"Today would not be taking place if it were not for Chaz," Ebert says. "And you know that's right."

"And it would not be taking place if it were not for your indomitable spirit," she answers back. "And you know that's right, because people would have understood totally if you decided never to do any of this again."

But he did — and Chaz Ebert says her husband is as passionate about the show now as he was when he started sitting in the balcony with Siskel 35 years ago.

"I think that's a real accomplishment because when you've been doing something for 35 years sometimes people become jaded or they become bored with it," she says. "But this show means as much to him today as it did when he first did it."

Roger Ebert says viewers should look to the show for "the same thing they should get from a good critic — ideas about how better to invest two hours of their lives."

Ebert selected Lemire and Vishnevetsky, he says, because he was looking for reviewers who were intelligent, funny and articulate. The pair of young reviewers will sit in red movie theater seats as they debate films.

"He truly cares about the legacy," Lemire, 38, said. "He's put a lot of faith in us, which is humbling. He's also made it easy to step into those feet and be our best."

The show's opening montage runs through pictures of Siskel and Ebert throughout the years before cutting to Lemire who tells viewers, "Welcome to 'Ebert Presents at the Movies' and welcome back to the balcony."

Vishnevetsky, 24, said he hopes to expose movie-goers to films of which they may not have heard, but also prompt discussion.

"What we can do and what we really should strive to do is engage in a discourse with what's going on in movies," Vishnevetsky said. "The show itself should almost form a conversation."

Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, said he's not surprised that despite challenges the Eberts have reinvented the show.

"His voice, by whatever means, is always current and greatly revered," Moskal said. "And it speaks volumes about the high regard that audiences and filmmakers have for him."

It's a legacy Ebert considers as well.

"This all started in this building in that studio in January 1976, maybe to the day," Ebert says. "What a long, strange journey it has been."