Eugene Kal "Gene" Siskel (January 26, 1946 – February 20, 1999) was an American film critic and journalist for Chicago Tribune. Along with colleague Roger Ebert, he hosted a series of popular review shows on television from 1975 to 1999.
Life and career
Siskel was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Ida (née Kalis) and Nathan William Siskel. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Siskel was raised by his aunt and uncle after both his parents died when he was ten years old. He attended Culver Academies and graduated from Yale University with a degree in philosophy in 1967, where he studied writing under Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey, who helped him land a job at Chicago Tribune in 1969. His first print review was for the film Rascal, which was written one month before he became the paper's film critic. His review of the film was favorable but received no stars by default since the paper did not use a star-rating system for films at the time. Siskel served in the United States Army Reserves, graduating from basic officers training in early 1968 and serving as a military journalist and public affairs officer for the Defense Information School. For a time afterwards, Gene was acquainted with Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner.
Siskel & Ebert
In 1975, Siskel teamed up with Roger Ebert, film reviewer for Chicago Sun-Times, to host a show on the local Chicago PBS station WTTW which eventually became Sneak Previews. Their "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" system soon became an easily recognizable trademark, popular enough to be parodied on comedy shows such as SCTV, In Living Color, Bizarre, and in movies such as Hollywood Shuffle and Godzilla. Sneak Previews gained a country-wide audience in 1977 when it was carried on PBS.
Siskel and Ebert left WTTW and PBS in 1982 for syndication. Their new show, At the Movies, was produced and distributed by Tribune Broadcasting, the parent company that owned the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV. Sneak Previews continued on PBS for 14 more years with other hosts. In 1986, Siskel and Ebert left Tribune Broadcasting to have their show produced by the syndication arm of The Walt Disney Company. The new incarnation of the show was originally titled Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, but later shortened to Siskel & Ebert. At the Movies also continued a few more years with other hosts.
A very early appearance of Siskel, taken from Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You, predecessor to Sneak Previews, is included in For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. In this 2009 documentary film he is seen debating with Ebert over the merits of the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Normally, Siskel and Roger Ebert would refuse to guest star in movies or televisual series (except for talk shows) as they felt it would undermine their "responsibility to the public". However, they both "could not resist" appearing on an episode of the animated television series The Critic, the title character of which was a film critic who hosted a television show. In the episode, Siskel and Ebert split and each wants Jay Sherman, the eponymous critic, as his new partner. They also once appeared in an episode of the children's television series Sesame Street. Siskel also appeared as himself on an episode of The Larry Sanders Show.
Siskel was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor on May 8, 1998. He underwent brain surgery three days later. He announced on Wednesday, February 3, 1999, that he was taking a leave of absence but that he expected to be back by the fall, writing, "I'm in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I."
Siskel died from complications of another surgery at the age of 53 on February 20, 1999. After Siskel's death, the producers of Siskel & Ebert began using other film critics on a rotating basis as an audition for a permanent successor. Ultimately, Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times colleague Richard Roeper was hired and the show was renamed Ebert & Roeper at the Movies. The last film Siskel reviewed on television with co-host Ebert was The Theory of Flight on Saturday, January 23, 1999. The final film that he reviewed in print was the Freddie Prinze Jr. romantic comedy She's All That, which he gave a favorable review.
At the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, after its "In Memoriam" montage of deceased stars and film contributors (which did not include Siskel as he was not an Academy member), host Whoopi Goldberg gave a brief, impromptu tribute to Siskel in which she said: "Gene, honey, wherever you are, here's to you" and then included the traditional "thumbs-up" gesture, to great audience applause.
Siskel was a die-hard Chicago sports fan, especially of the NBA's Bulls, and would cover locker-room celebrations for WBBM-TV news broadcasts following Bulls championships in the 1990s. Siskel was a member of the Film Center's Advisory Committee and a strong supporter of the Film Center mission. He wrote hundreds of articles applauding the Film Center's distinctive programming and he lent the power of his position as a well-known film critic to urge public funding and audience support. The Film Center was renamed The Gene Siskel Film Center in his honor in 2000.
His favorite films of all time were Saturday Night Fever (he even bought the famous white disco suit from it at a charity auction) and Dr. Strangelove. Another favorite from childhood was Dumbo, which he often mentioned as the first film that made a mark on him.
Siskel compiled "best of the year" film lists from 1969 to 1998, which have helped to provide an overview of his critical preferences. His top choices were:
From 1969 until his death in early 1999, he and Ebert were in agreement on nine top selections: Z, The Godfather, Nashville, The Right Stuff, Do the Right Thing, GoodFellas, Schindler's List, Hoop Dreams, and Fargo. There would have been a tenth, except that Ebert declined to rank the documentary Shoah as 1985's best film because he felt it was inappropriate to compare it to the rest of the year's candidates. Seven times, Siskel's #1 choice did not appear on Ebert's top ten list at all: Straight Time, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, The Last Emperor, The Last Temptation of Christ, Hearts of Darkness, and The Ice Storm. Six times, Ebert's top selection did not appear on Siskel's; these films were 3 Women, An Unmarried Woman, Apocalypse Now, Sophie's Choice, Mississippi Burning, and Dark City.
He walked out on three films during his professional career: the 1971 comedy The Million Dollar Duck starring Dean Jones; the 1980 horror film Maniac; and the 1996 Penelope Spheeris film Black Sheep. Only once during his long association with Ebert did Siskel ever change his vote on a movie. The film Broken Arrow had initially been given a "thumbs up", but after hearing Ebert's criticism, Siskel changed his mind to "thumbs down" to make it unanimous. Both critics had specific sensitivities and feelings that would often vary in extremes to certain kinds of bad films. Ebert was very sensitive to films about race and ethnicity, whereas Siskel was sensitive to films about families and family relationships- he had a special hatred for films like House Arrest (1996) and Like Father Like Son (1987), both of which were about parents and their children.
Ebert once said of his relationship with Gene Siskel:
Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility.
When both men appeared together on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, Joan Rivers conducted a "together and separately" interview with them, which at one point had each man wear Walkman-style headphones, playing loud music, while the other commented on his partner. When asked what he thought was the biggest difference between himself and Ebert, Siskel unhesitatingly replied: "I'm a better reviewer than he is". But a few moments later, he said that anyone who read a Roger Ebert review would read "an extremely well-written review".