Obituary: Gene Siskel

Pierre Perrone
Tuesday 23 February 1999 01:02

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.

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