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Roeper reviewed: Silver screen critic scripted own success

Richard Roeper in a studio

Alum Richard Roeper in a WLS radio studio.

Richard Roeper ’82 has his dream job—all three of them.

With a regular column in the Chicago Sun-Times, a gig as a national movie critic, and a radio show on WLS, this media giant is living his dreams.

The secret to his success? Years of hard work that began at Illinois State.

Growing up in the Chicago south suburb of Dolton, Roeper already had the makings of a great journalist when he arrived on campus. He was an avid reader and writing came naturally.

“My parents would always take me to the library,” Roeper said. “They instilled that love of reading in me. My dad worked downtown and would always bring back the Sun-Times or the Tribune, and even as a kid I would look at the sports pages and other sections.”

Roeper carried his natural curiosity and penchant for the written word to Illinois State, where he majored in mass communications.

“I knew Illinois State had a good communications program. I had friends who were already there, so I would go down and see what a great campus it was,” Roeper said. “I felt like I’d get more hands-on treatment there.”

The aspiring journalist was involved with WZND and encouraged by station advisor Dwight Brooks to also consider radio.

“It’s hard to believe, but I was relatively quiet when I came to college,” Roeper said. “Brooks told me that I had a good voice but needed to work on breath control and delivery. He showed me that I could communicate verbally as well as through the written word.”

After graduating, Roeper took up residence in the nicest place a 20-something college graduate could afford—his parent’s basement.

“People ask me all of the time, ‘Who did you know when you broke into the business? What were your connections? Don’t you have to know somebody?’” Roeper said. “I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t grow up with money. I didn’t go to Yale and have some sort of big fraternity of helpful brethren getting me jobs.”

Instead Roeper pounded the pavement to get a foot in the newspaper world. He accepted freelance writing jobs. He mailed writing samples and resumes, bought lunch for editors, and showed up unannounced to see if there was a place for him.

Eventually the Sun-Times offered him a position as an editorial assistant. His duties? Get coffee, answer phones and sort mail. Roeper jumped at the opportunity knowing that the job did one key thing: It put him in the building.

“That was how I got my main break, getting my foot in the door,” Roeper said. “It was a great job because I was walking into the Chicago Sun-Times, one of these legendary newspaper businesses, with writers I had grown up reading.”

Once part of the team, Roeper found opportunities to write for the paper. He proved his mettle, earning a job as a city reporter covering everything from hard news to human interest stories. His first byline in the paper was a story on a travelling Elvis memorabilia museum—a story that was mocked later that day on WLS. Rather than respond with humiliation, Roeper considered it a landmark moment. Not only had he gotten a Sun-Times byline, he’d made mention on the super station.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Roeper said. “It was a moment when I thought I might be able to have a career in this.”

Today Roeper still reaches the masses through his syndicated column in the Sun-Times. He uses the forum to tackle current events, sports, technology, politics and entertainment—often through the outrageous yet sobering lens that is his trademark.

Roeper brought that same rapier wit and no-holds-barred personality to his work in reviewing movies when asked to join legendary film critic and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert. He sought a new cohost following the death of Gene Siskel in 1999. The search involved teaming with more than 25 critics and Hollywood personalities before Roeper was selected as cohost.

“I’ll never forget the moment Roger Ebert personally told me I had the job,” said Roeper, who served 10 guest stints with Ebert. “We were on Wabash Avenue coming out of a screening and Roger tells me, ‘I can’t let you linger for this long. You got the job. It’s going to be you.’”

Ebert & Roeper at the Movies—renamed Ebert & Roeper followed by At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper—ran from 2000 to 2008 and is largely responsible for Roeper becoming synonymous with movies. But in such a high-profile role, even a critic is not safe from criticism.

“My first show with Roger Ebert was reviewed on the front of Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and major newspapers. Even David Letterman was making jokes about the show,” Roeper recalled. “So I think unlike most other critics, I know what it is like to be on the other side. And that’s a valuable thing. You have to be able to take it if you’re going to dish it out. I try not to get personal most of the time. It’s about what the person is doing in their work or their public life.”

Since parting ways with the show, Roeper has been reviewing movies on the ReelzChannel. The segments appear to be filmed on a high-budget set, yet are actually done on a miniature studio built in a spare bedroom of Roeper’s Chicago pad that is complete with grey screen, camera, stage lighting, and an iPad teleprompter.

One thing you won’t find in the critic’s apartment is a personal theatre room with a robust movie collection.

“Watching movies is work. It’s great work, but it’s work,” Roeper said. “I do miss the fun of going to the movies with others. Sometimes screenings I go to will include people who are attending because they won a contest, and they are very excited to be there. It’s good for a critic to be reminded that it is entertainment. Seeing a movie is an expensive investment. Their Saturday night is my Tuesday morning, and I try to keep that in mind.”

Roeper typically sees six movies a week. When not critiquing the silver screen, he is sending his voice across the airwaves as cohost of WLS-AM’s The Roe & Roeper Show. He has teamed with radio veteran Roe Conn since 2010, bringing in authorities to speak on the latest issues in politics, sports, media, and entertainment.

“One of the things I love about radio is the immediacy,” Roeper said. “During this show we have had news that is tragic, breaking, and sometimes fun. But instead of waiting to get it out there, you have an immediate voice.”

The fact Roeper grew up listening to WLS adds meaning to his work.

“No matter where people are from there are a few call letters everyone knows, and WLS is one of them,” Roeper said. “That excitement never wears off.”

Check out Richard Roeper’s reviews and columns at The Roe & Roeper Show airs from 2–6 p.m., Monday–Friday, on WLS 890AM.