Obituary: Gene Siskel

WHEN THE film critic Barry Norman left BBC1's Film 98 and joined Sky Premier last year, the announcement barely ruffled the pages of the British press. In North America, Gene Siskel's death was headline news over the weekend.

Alongside the avuncular Roger Ebert, the tall, balding Siskel developed a film reviewing style which made their syndicated television show required viewing for Hollywood executives and dedicated US film-goers. Their 25- year partnership pioneered the Roman emperor-like thumbs-up and thumbs- down verdict and effortlessly connected with the mainstream audience to such an extent that their programme was even successfully sold overseas (BBC 2 showed it in 1992).

Born in 1946, Gene Siskel was orphaned before his 10th birthday but he did not have a miserable childhood. With his brother and sister, he was raised in Illinois by an aunt and an uncle who already had three children of their own. The movies held such fascination for the young Gene that, every Saturday, he would walk eight blocks to the nearest cinema to catch the latest releases.

A Star is Born and A Streetcar Named Desire made a great impression on him. He remembered seeing the Elia Kazan film "in the back seat of the car and hearing people yell and scream. I grew up in a very happy house where I didn't hear that. There was definitely something potent there, it was adult. That's what the movies meant to me."

Siskel gained a philosophy degree from Yale University in 1967 and intended to become a lawyer. Two years later, a letter of recommendation from a Yale tutor, the author John Hersey, helped him land a job at The Chicago Tribune. Starting as a local reporter, Siskel wrote a review of Walt Disney's The Rascal, the story of a boy and his pet racoon, and was promoted to film critic.

Roger Ebert, a writer who had dreamed up the plot of Russ Meyer's infamous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, was already established in the same role at the rival Chicago Sun-Times and, in the early Seventies, the two competed ferociously for the latest movie scoop. "We intensely disliked each other," recalled Siskel. "We perceived each other as a threat to our well-being," added the journalist who had launched Beat Siskel, a contest in which readers tried to beat him in predicting Oscar-winners. He remained a strong critic of the Academy Awards.

In 1974, Siskel began providing reviews and features for WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago. The following year, Eliot Wald, a producer at WTTW (the local station was part of the Public Broadcasting System network), thought about exploiting the critics' rivalry and notoriety on a television show. "These were two men who would never have chosen each other for friends," said Thea Flaum, the programme's executive producer. "But TV forced them to find a way to work together."

Against all odds, the two personalities, at first reluctant to collaborate, developed a natural chemistry. Of course, there were arguments but any debate and disagreement only enhanced the show's appeal. From local beginnings and tacky tactics such as introducing the "Dog of the Week" with a canine co-presenter, or the "Stinker of the Week" with a skunk, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You became slicker and evolved into Sneak Previews, reaching a national audience when it was syndicated on PBS in 1978.

Four years later, the duo gained a sponsor for the renamed At the Movies, with Tribune Entertainement. Subsequently, the pair joined Buena Vista Television, a division of the Walt Disney Company which changed the show's name to Siskel & Ebert at the Movies.

Film exhibitors and companies were hanging on their every word, hoping for that essential box-office boost: the two thumbs-up or the Siskel & Ebert quote they could add to the posters on opening weekend. Paul Dergarabedian, spokesman for the Exhibitor Relations Co, said that "the duo took film criticism into the mainstream. The average person would look to them about where to spend their hard-earned dollars at the box office." The film director Robert Altman, whose Nashville had been an early tip from Siskel & Ebert, admitted that "they were a positive thing. Several shows tried to emulate them and failed."

Siskel often attributed the pair's success to the fact that they operated from Chicago. "We're between the media capital (New York) and the movie capital (LA), and so we don't get romanced, and we don't keep running into the people." By the mid-Eighties, the co-hosts were indeed extremely powerful, very famous (they appeared on Johnny Carson's chat show in 1985) and rather rich. Gene Siskel could even afford to buy the three-piece white suit and black shirt John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever, a movie Siskel had seen 17 times (when he sold the clothes at auction 16 years later, in 1995, they fetched pounds 92,000, giving him a pounds 91,000 profit).

Other of his favourites included Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Dr Strangelove, The General, Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Singin' in the Rain, Pinocchio and Shoah. His top films of the last five years included Hoop Dreams, Crumb, Fargo, The Ice Storm and, surprisingly, Babe: Pig in the City, panned by most critics.

Though he became a contributor to CBS television's This Morning, the best-selling weekly TV Guide and various other magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Siskel didn't think he was overdoing it. "I do not view myself as a workaholic but as basically lazy," said the committed family man and Chicago Bulls basketball fan. "I'm not a natural like Mr Ebert. But I still have my enthusiasm for the job and you can't fake that. My fantasy is that, in another 40 years, Roger and I will have attendant nurses and we'll still do the show."

Last May, Siskel had surgery to remove a cancer growth from his brain but made a swift return. However, earlier this month, he announced he was taking time off to recuperate from delayed reaction to the operation.

Gene Siskel earned numerous accolades, including five Emmy nominations and an Iris Award from the US Association of Television Programming Executives. "Gene was a lifelong friend, and our professional competition only strengthened that bond," said Ebert. "I can't even imagine what it will be like without him. The show will continue with revolving guests. In the future, we will see.

"As a critic, Siskel was passionate and exacting. I think it was important to Gene that this was the only serious film criticism on television. That made him proud. We had a lot of big fights. We were people who came together one day a week and, the other six days, we were competitors on two daily newspapers and two different television stations. So there was a lot of competition and a lot of disagreement."

Siskel himself said: "I wish that I had got to know more people at the level at which I know Roger - because I do care for him. We agreed far more often than we disagreed. We shared a magical time together talking about one of the things we love so much: the movies."

Pierre Perrone

Eugene Kal Siskel, film critic, journalist and broadcaster: born Chicago, Illinois 26 January 1946; married Marlene Iglitzen (two daughters, one son); died Evan-ston, Illinois 20 February 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker