Chaz Ebert on Roger's Health: 'Hope Is a Strategy'
By Mike Hess Posted Apr 20th 2010 06:00AM
Exclusive: Chaz Ebert has been through some dreadful times in recent years, as Roger Ebert -- who you know as the most prominent film critic in the county, but she knows as her husband -- was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002. He's since had several surgeries, the most recent of which removed a large portion of his jaw, leaving him unable to speak. Still, during an interview with PopEater, it became clear that Chaz is surprisingly upbeat, positive and looking forward to the future -- the exact kind of person you'd want by your side should bad news be handed down. "Sometimes, I'm almost ashamed we feel so positive. People think you shouldn't be so happy, because when you fall, it's going to be that much more disappointing. But you know what? We'll take each day as it comes," Ebert told PopEater in our extremely candid interview. After the jump, Chaz tells of Roger's health, how tumultuous a ride it's been and what Roger doesn't like her saying.
Is openly talking about your and Roger's life something you felt was necessary?
I think the main thing to say is that Roger has always been a very open person and he's not one to really keep secrets. Roger and I both have a philosophy that people and their basic nature are good. Still, it's been very difficult to discuss it when you are in the entertainment industry. There is a different standard as to what people expect as far as health and beauty and so-forth. I think Roger is very courageous in saying, "I'm not going to hide and I want to live my life and this is the way it is." So we just go with it.
How did the decision to go public with everything happen?
The first decision was to call in a photographer when he first got out of the hospital, because he really had to go to his film festival, Ebertfest. There were so many people advising him, saying he shouldn't go... They said, "Maybe you should wait until after you have your next surgery. If people see you look different, they'll send all of the tabloids out to photograph you." Roger said, "I can't worry about that, I'm going to my film festival and that's it." I supported him in that decision because we knew we couldn't just give up. We both love life so much that we didn't want to hide.
How has it affected you in your psyche? People have been overwhelmingly on Roger's side. Do you think that's because he's built such a relationship and rapport with his fans?
Roger and I have been thrilled at how welcoming and accepting people have been. It really reinforces my faith in humankind. I think you hit the nail on the head. Over all these years that Roger has been a film critic, he's built up credibility with the public, who expect him to be open and honest. Credibility is a currency that he was able to use in this situation and that people were rooting for him -- as he's so often rooted for the underdog over the years -- that's one of the ways I can best explain it. I also think Roger has very good karma, and I think I do too.
Many people -- including Roger himself and Oprah -- have credited you with saving his life and giving him the will to keep fighting. How much of that is conscious decision on your part, or is it just instinct?
Part of it is instinct and the way I am, and I try to think about this. For instance, I come from a very large family. I have four brothers and four sisters, so if you can imagine, my mom and dad had many situations that were difficult. But the thing our family always did, my mother would say, "Don't worry, everything's going to be OK." She and my dad would roll up their sleeves, mobilize the troops and no matter how bad the situation, you'd think things are going to turn out OK.
Secondly, and I know Roger doesn't like me telling people this, I just had a very deeply spiritual -- almost psychic feeling -- that it was not his time to go; that he was going to be around for other things, and that I had to fight for him to be here.
Why doesn't he like you saying that?
If you talk about things that are deeply spiritual -- almost in a metaphysical sense -- he gets a little uncomfortable because he's more of a Darwinian evolutionist, and sometimes I believe in life that if we don't have all the answers, it's still a gut instinct that the universe gives us.
Was the Oprah Winfrey interview therapeutic or cathartic for you? Were you nervous going into it?
I didn't know what to expect, and yes I was nervous, but we did trust Oprah going in, because we knew she tries to do things that are more for the public good. Going in, we said we don't know what to expect from this -- what they were going to ask us -- but it was going to turn out OK in the end.
Are you glad you did it?
Yes, I am. The only thing is when people come up to me and talk about it, I'm really astounded at the number of people who start crying. They say, "I was crying then, I'm crying now" ... I didn't realize it would touch people so deeply. Going in, I said, "My one rule is I wasn't going to cry." That went by the wayside.
If it's at all possible to think in this sense, what's the biggest positive to have come out of Roger's illness?
Yes, there is a positive. The positive is we learned that we are much stronger than we thought we were. We learned that our relationship is so beautiful and so strong. We learned that people come through with support and encouragement when you need it. We learned that you can't hide. You have to live your life in a joyful manner, no matter your health or your circumstances.
What advice can you give for to those who may be dealing with an illness in the family in regards to keeping a strong attitude during the toughest times?
I think my first piece of advice would be to pray for guidance, and not just in a religious sense. The second step would be to maintain your hope and faith that things will turn out OK, even if people tell you you are in denial. A few people told me when he was really sick and he didn't look good, and I said, "I have this feeling things will be OK." They said, "You're in denial." I said, "I may be, but hope is a strategy." And number three, surround yourself with a support group of family and friends.
Next, go on the Internet and look up everything that you can about the illness. Everything you read on the Internet may not be true or accurate, but at least you get some sort of education that we didn't have before the Internet. That was really essential to me.
Also, don't be afraid to question the doctors. Sometimes, we think the doctors are the end-all. We had excellent doctors, and yet the situation Roger was in was a very unusual one. So sometimes they were guessing about things just like I was, and sometimes I had an idea of things where I said, "I won't even bring this up because I don't know as much as the doctors do." In a situation like that, you have to question everything... you can't say, "Oh, they're too busy." Ask as many questions as you think you need to ask.
Speaking of the Internet, Roger has really utilized the Web -- both his journal and Twitter(@ebertchicago) -- to communicate.
It's been crucial. When he communicates on the Web, he feels exactly the same as everyone else. He doesn't feel like he doesn't have his physical voice. I was the one who encouraged him to go onto Twitter. He was reluctant at first. I knew this: There would be something he could enjoy about it. His blog is more long-form and he really gets a lot out of writing his journals, and he gets lots of good comments there. I knew he also needed a little more instantaneous feedback that he could get through Twitter. It turned out to be the case. First, he kept saying, "No, Twitter is for twits." He'd say things like that, but once he got on ... he got a lot of satisfaction out of it. He saw it was another way of communicating with people. It opened up the world more to him. One thing about Roger's blog is he gets a big international following as well, and I think that's very gratifying to him. We're having the Roger Ebert Film Festival next week, and we have one panel called the foreign correspondents... we have people coming from Turkey, Egypt, the Philippines, Mexico, England. All of these are people he met through the Web and they're all coming to participate at the film festival, and that's nothing that could have happened before the Internet phenomenon.
Having followed Roger's columns and shows for years, he always seems to strike me as the smartest guy in the room. Is it ever intimidating knowing you have to hold your own with a presence like him?
It's actually fun. We really love that about each other. He loves the way I think, and I love the way he thinks. His friends say we were a perfect match -- that none of his girlfriends challenged him intellectually. We love that about each other.
Roger has also said that you're a huge movie buff. What's the one movie you two have disagreed on the most?
I still can't see why he doesn't think 'A Clockwork Orange' is a four-star movie. That's the one that still baffles me. He has such good taste in certain movies, and it seems like that would be one of the ones that he would love. He watched it twice more once he learned it was my favorite movie, and he still says it doesn't resonate. And of course, I don't always agree with him. Sometimes I may disagree with a rating that he gives a movie, but I always love to read the way he defends his ratings. Even if you disagree with him, you're willing to go along and understand why he gave a movie either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. His writing is so beautiful.
What's one thing you and Roger constantly laugh about?
Because Roger is so knowledgeable about so many things, he's used to people conceding. And because my background is law and because I was also the top of my class going through school, I don't always back down. He'll laugh and say, "That's what you get for marrying the smartest girl in the class."
In 2012, you'll have been married 20 years. Looking back, does it seem like that length of time has passed?
For about the first 10 years of our marriage, it felt like we were newlyweds. Because he's in a profession that keeps you young -- keeping your sights on cultural things through movies keeps you young in spirit and in thought -- we do not feel like a couple who has been married for almost 20 years. We still feel like we are teenagers in high school, going through life together, having fun, learning about things and still curious about what's going to happen tomorrow.
During the time he was sick, it did feel like it had been a long time, because each day seemed like a long day. We didn't know what to expect the next day. The years went by so quickly, and for most of those years, we had a ball. We had a great time together. We're going to say time flies when you're having fun.
What do you think the future holds for you and Roger?
We are very optimistic about the future. Each day is still fun, I'll just say it like that. We're working on putting together a new movie review show for him. As Roger said, instead of slowing him down, his illness is speeding him up. We're going to try to take advantage of all the new media for the show, so that makes everything feel fresh and new.
Sometimes, I'm almost ashamed we feel so positive. People think you shouldn't be so happy, because when you fall, it's going to be that much more disappointing.. But you know what? We'll take each day as it comes. That's one of the reasons we were so attracted to each other, because we saw that the positive attitude in each other. It doesn't mean we don't have days when we're very sad. If we could turn back the clock and have Roger regain his voice and beat cancer, we'd do it, of course. But since we can't, we give what life has given us, and because it's given us so much good, we can't complain about the bad.
Roger Ebert Snapshots
Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz are seen here at the 25th Film Independent's Spirit Awards on March 5, 2010 in Los Angeles. Click for More Photos of Roger and Chaz >>>
Getty Images North America
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