By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Though Roger Ebert continues to be America’s best-known film critic, he will forever be linked in television history and the public consciousness with Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune critic with whom he sparred on the small screen from 1975 until Mr. Siskel’s untimely death from brain cancer in February 1999.
Both were natives of Illinois, but that seemed to be where the similarities ended. Mr. Siskel was from big-city Chicago and Mr. Ebert from heartland Urbana. Their banter, which sometimes reached a high pitch, was one of the main elements that made the show work. Possibly because of that, it was sometimes assumed they detested each other off-camera.
That assumption was wrong, according to Mr. Ebert. “We were friends,” he said. “Sometimes we were friends who were very angry with each other.
“The best way to describe it, I think, is to say it was a sibling rivalry. We were rivals, to be sure. I’ve heard the expression ‘best enemies,’ and perhaps you could call us that. But when we were on Howard Stern’s show and he went after us, we ganged up together against him. That speaks volumes. Whatever disagreements we had between us, we were united against the world like brothers would be.”
Gene Siskel was orphaned at age 10 and grew up in the home of an aunt and uncle and at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana. He attended Yale, expecting to become a lawyer, but he became the prot%E9;g%E9; of the famed author John Hersey, a professor, who wrote a letter of recommendation that secured Mr. Siskel a job at the Tribune in 1969.
Seven months later he became film critic for the venerable paper. Mr. Ebert was already ensconced across the street at the Sun-Times. Mr. Ebert dismissed reports that the two competitors would chafe at being in the same room together during the early 1970s, before the TV show that would become “Siskel & Ebert” began. “We barely knew each other,” he said.
“Gene was more competitive,” recalled Thea Flaum, who created the show, originally titled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” and produced its run on local Chicago television, and later, with its name changed to “Sneak Previews,” its stint on public TV. “He was more obviously intense than Roger. He could be in-your-face abrasive even, but incredibly smart. Incredibly.
“These are two people who never would have been friends had it not been for the TV show, and I think after years of wariness they became true friends.”
While the series ultimately named “Siskel & Ebert” linked the two men, Mr. Siskel carved out an identity of his own as the film critic on “CBS This Morning,” on the CBS owned-and-operated Chicago station WBBM-TV, and for TV Guide.
Mr. Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer about a year before he died, and on occasion did reviews for the show by telephone from his sickbed. Married with three children, his last public appearance-at his daughter’s bat mitzvah-had all the drama of a powerful movie. Though he had trouble walking, he made it to the bimah (ritual podium) and delivered a powerful address that left the gathered in awe, from both his words and his courage, with nary a dry eye in the house.
Two weeks later, at the age of 53, he was dead.