Born in Chicago, Illinois, Canby became the chief film critic for The New York Times in 1969. He was an enthusiastic supporter of many filmmakers, notably Woody Allen, who credited Canby's rave review of Take The Money and Run as a crucial point in his career. He was also heavily critical of some popular films, such as Rocky, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and The Godfather: Part II.
He died from cancer in Manhattan, New York City. Almost three years later, upon the death of Bob Hope, the late Canby's byline appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Canby had written the bulk of Hope's obituary for the newspaper several years before.