IN TWEET: ROGER EBERT AND GENE SISKEL INVENTED THE “DUELING CRITICS” FORMAT. SISKEL PASSED AWAY IN 1999 AND, TODAY, ROGER EBERT JOINED HIM IN THAT GREAT BIG MOVIE PALACE IN THE SKY.
Roger Ebert, legendary film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and one half of TV movie review duo Siskel and Ebert, died today after a long battle with cancer. Ebert had just posted online Tuesday about his relapse but, he was optimistic about bouncing back. He was 70 years old.
When I was a kid, as far as movie reviews went, there was Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The rest of the critics were also-rans. Siskel and Ebert were the gold standard for movie lovers and trademarked their signature thumbs up/thumbs down style of final verdict. If one or, heaven forbid, both hated a movie, two thumbs down could spell death at the box office. They had that much power.
Not only did people trust them, the audience loved them. Their constant bickering and sometimes vocal disagreements were a big part of the attraction. They were Statler and Waldorf come to life. Though they were rivals in every sense of the word, Siskel and Ebert shared an unbridled passion for movies. It was infectious.
They first made their mark in 1975 on the weekly movie review series SNEAK PREVIEWS produced by PBS affiliate WTTW in Chicago. Ebert worked for the the Sun-Times and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the first film critic to receive the award. Siskel wrote for the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune. They left PBS in 1982 after a contract dispute.
Though WTTW replaced them, the lions share of the audience followed the duo to the syndicated AT THE MOVIES WITH GENE SISKEL AND ROGER EBERT and, in 1986, to SISKEL AND EBERT AND THE MOVIES, which was re-christened SISKEL & EBERT in 1987 and ran until Siskel passed away in 1999.
Of the two, Siskel was the more scholarly and urbane. Ebert was the populist, a man with impeccable taste who didn’t think there was anything wrong with also praising his guilty pleasures. Not that Siskel was a snob, he wasn’t, but Ebert was often the wild card. He’d give thumbs up to a cheesy teen romp and the next week take down a critical darling. He was the yin to Siskels' yang and the combination was electric.
When I worked at Universal Studios Florida back in the early 1990’s, I was an operations lead at ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE ART OF MAKEING MOVIES. I was tending to the outdoor queue one afternoon and noticed a tall, distinguished man walking through the line with the rest of the guests. It was Gene Siskel. When I approached and asked if he would like VIP access, he tried to refuse but the movie geek in me would hear none of it.
I escorted Siskel through the attraction, a combination of a tribute film with a surprise 3-D finale (birds! birds! birds!), a live stage re-enactment of the filming of the shower scene from PSYCHO and an interactive area dedicated to a behind-the-scenes look at Hitchcock’s technical brilliance.
Siskel was like a kid in a candy store (which made me doubly goofy). At the end, he took time to meet and chat with the rest of my team. When I asked what he thought of the attraction, he said it was impressive but “man, would Roger love this place.” I thought the sentiment was so touching at the time. Today, it’s especially bittersweet.
It’s impossible to eulogize Ebert without including Siskel. They were rivals who became close friends because of a common interest: a love of movies. Both will be missed but their writing, their spirit and their humor will be with us always. If your weren’t lucky enough to see them in their prime or want to enjoy some really wonderful memories, CLICK HERE for a fascinating article on the duo from Slate and then check out this brief video sampler of the pair going it at. The f-bomb filled McDonalds riff alone is priceless.
Thanks, Gene. Thanks, Roger. Two thumbs up! Fade to black.