Eugene Kal Siskel
January 26, 1946
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||February 20, 1999 (aged 53)|
Evanston, Illinois, U.S.
|Resting place||Westlawn Cemetery|
|Alma mater||Yale University|
|Occupation||Television journalist, film critic|
|Notable credit(s)||Opening Soon at a Theater Near You (1975–1977)|
Sneak Previews (1977–1982)
At the Movies (1982–1986)
Siskel & Ebert (1986–1999)
CBS This Morning (1990–1996)
Good Morning America (1996–1999)
Eugene Kal Siskel (January 26, 1946 – February 20, 1999) was an American film critic and journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Along with colleague Roger Ebert, he hosted a series of movie review programs on television from 1975 until his death in 1999.
Siskel started writing for the Chicago Tribune in 1969, becoming its film critic soon after. In 1975, he was paired with Roger Ebert to co-host a monthly show called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You airing locally on PBS member station WTTW. In 1978, the show, renamed Sneak Previews, was expanded to weekly episodes and aired on PBS affiliates all around the United States. In 1982, Siskel and Ebert both left Sneak Previews to create the syndicated show At the Movies. Following a contract dispute with Tribune Entertainment in 1986, Siskel and Ebert signed with Buena Vista Television, creating Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (renamed Siskel & Ebert in 1987, and renamed again several times after Siskel's death).
Known for their biting wit, intense professional rivalry, heated arguments, and their trademark "Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down" movie ratings system, Siskel and Ebert became a sensation in American pop culture. Siskel remained in the public eye as Ebert's professional partner until Siskel's death on February 20, 1999, at age 53, from complications following his May 1998 brain surgery.
Siskel was born in Chicago, and was the son of Ida (née Kalis) and Nathan William Siskel. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Siskel lost both of his parents as a child and, as a result, was raised by his aunt and uncle, moving with them when he was nine 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. Hersey's reference assisted him in gaining a job at the Chicago Tribune in 1969.
Siskel's first print review, written one month before he became the Tribune's film critic, was for the film Rascal. His review of the film was not favorable ("Because of the excessive gimmicky, most kids will miss the tenderness," he wrote). Prior to this he served in the US Army Reserve; he was a military journalist and public affairs officer for the Defense Information School. For a time afterwards, he was acquainted with Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner.
In 1986, the Chicago Tribune announced that Siskel was no longer the paper's film critic, and that his position with the paper had been shifted from that of a full-time film critic to that of a freelance contract writer who was to write about the film industry for the Sunday paper and also provide capsule film reviews for the paper's entertainment sections. The demotion occurred after Siskel and Ebert decided to shift production of their weekly movie-review show, then known as At the Movies (later known as Siskel & Ebert), from Tribune Entertainment to The Walt Disney Company's Buena Vista Television unit. Editor James Squires stated on the move, "He's done a great job for us. It's a question of how much a person can do physically. We think you need to be a newspaper person first, and Gene Siskel always tried to do that. But there comes a point when a career is so big that you can't do that." Siskel declined to comment on the new arrangement, but Ebert publicly criticized Siskel's Tribune bosses for punishing Siskel for taking their television program to a company other than Tribune Entertainment. Siskel remained in that freelance position until his death in 1999. He was replaced as film critic by Dave Kehr.
The last review published by Siskel for the Chicago Tribune was for the film She's All That, published on January 29, 1999, in which he gave a favorable review, giving it three stars out of four and wrote that "Rachael Leigh Cook as Laney, the plain Jane object of the makeover, is forced to demonstrate the biggest emotional range as a character, and she is equal to the assignment. I look forward to seeing her in her next movie."
Siskel & Ebert
In 1975, Siskel teamed up with Ebert, film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, to host a show on 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 Second City Television, In Living Color, Bizarre, and in movies such as Hollywood Shuffle and Godzilla. Sneak Previews gained a nationwide audience in 1977 when WTTW offered it as a series to the PBS program system.
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 of the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV. Sneak Previews continued on PBS for 14 more years with other hosts until it's cancellation in 1996. 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 for a few more years with other hosts until it's cancellation in 1990.
The last five movies Siskel reviewed with Ebert on the show before his death aired during the weekend of January 23–24, 1999. On the show, they reviewed At First Sight, Another Day in Paradise, The Hi-Lo Country, Playing by Heart, and The Theory of Flight. Siskel gave thumbs up to all of them, except for Playing by Heart.
Following Siskel's death, Ebert continued the series with rotating guest hosts, which included Martin Scorsese, Janet Maslin, Peter Bogdanovich, Todd McCarthy, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Kenneth Turan. Elvis Mitchell, and the eventual replacement for Siskel, Richard Roeper.
Film and TV appearances
Siskel and Ebert were known for their many appearances on late-night talk shows, including appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman sixteen times and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson fifteen times. They also appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Arsenio Hall Show, Howard Stern, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
In 1982, 1983, and 1985, Siskel, along with Ebert, appeared as themselves on Saturday Night Live. For their first two appearances, they reviewed sketches from that night's telecast and review sketches from the "SNL Film Festival" for their last appearance.
In 1991, Siskel, along with Ebert, appeared in a segment on the children's television series Sesame Street entitled "Sneak Peak Previews" (a parody of Sneak Previews). In the segment, the critics instruct the hosts Oscar the Grouch and Telly Monster on how their thumbs up/thumbs down rating system works. Oscar asks if there could be a thumbs sideways ratings, and goads the two men into an argument about whether or not that would be acceptable, as Ebert likes the idea, but Siskel does not. The two were also seen that same year in the show's celebrity version of "Monster in the Mirror".
In 1993, Siskel appeared as himself in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show entitled "Off Camera". Entertainment Weekly chose his performance as one of the great scenes in that year's television.
In 1995, Siskel and Ebert guest-starred on an episode of the animated TV series The Critic entitled "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice". In the episode, Siskel and Ebert split and each wants protagonist Jay Sherman, a fellow movie critic, as his new partner. The episode is a parody of the film Sleepless in Seattle.
A very early appearance of Siskel, taken from Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, the predecessor to Sneak Previews, is included in the 2009 documentary film, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. In the film, he is seen debating with Ebert over the merits of the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Gene Siskel had an abrasive review style, and claimed his film criticism was an individual exercise that should not be swayed by public taste. In an interview for The Academy of Television and Radio, his TV co-host said of him, "I think Gene felt that he had to like the whole picture to give it a thumbs up."
In particular, he often gave negative reviews to films that became box office champs and went on to be considered mainstream classics: Poltergeist, Scarface, Beverly Hills Cop, The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Thelma & Louise, and Independence Day. This even extended to several films that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture: The Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven.
Yet, Ebert also noted in a memoriam episode of Siskel and Ebert that when Siskel found a movie that he truly treasured, he embraced it as something special. Directly addressing his late colleague, Ebert said: "I know for sure that seeing a truly great movie made you so happy that you'd tell me a week later your spirits were still high." Some of Siskel's most treasured movies included My Dinner with Andre (1981), Shoah (1985), Fargo (1996), and the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994).
One of Siskel's favorite films was Saturday Night Fever; he even bought the famous white disco suit that John Travolta wore in the film from a charity auction. Another all-time favorite was Dr. Strangelove. A favorite from childhood was Dumbo, which he often mentioned as the first film that had an influence on him.
Best films of the year
From 1969 until his death in early 1999, he and Ebert were in agreement on nine annual 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, but Ebert declined to rank the 9+1⁄2-hour documentary Shoah as 1985's best film because he felt it was inappropriate to compare it to the rest of the year's candidates. Six times, Siskel's number one choice did not appear on Ebert's top ten list at all: Straight Time, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, 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.
In 1980, Siskel married Marlene Iglitzen, who was then a producer for CBS in New York. They had two daughters, Kate and Callie, and a son, Will. Their daughters graduated from Siskel's alma mater, Yale University.
Siskel was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor on May 8, 1998. He underwent brain surgery three days later. For a few weeks after the surgery he did the Siskel & Ebert show on the telephone (from his hospital bed) while Ebert was in the studio. Siskel eventually returned to the studio after his recovery, but was noted to appear more lethargic and mellow than usual. On February 3, 1999, he announced that he was taking a leave of absence from the show, but that he expected to be back by the fall, stating, "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 his May 1998 brain surgery on February 20, 1999. His funeral was held on February 22, 1999, at the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. He is interred at Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, Illinois.
Siskel was a Chicago sports fan, especially of his hometown basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, and would cover locker-room celebrations for WBBM-TV news broadcasts following Bulls championships in the 1990s.
Siskel was also a member of the advisory committee of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a strong supporter of the Film Center mission. He wrote hundreds of articles applauding the Film Center's distinctive programming and lent the power of his position as a well-known film critic to urge public funding and audience support. In 2000, the Film Center was renamed The Gene Siskel Film Center in his honor.
Only once during his long association with Ebert did Siskel ever change his vote on a movie during the review. He initially gave the film Broken Arrow a "thumbs up", but after hearing Ebert's criticism, Siskel changed his mind to "thumbs down". However, he had changed his opinions on films years after his initial reviews, as with Tremors, which he gave a negative review to in 1990 but later gave a glowing positive review in 1994, stating, "I wasn't sure what I missed the first time around, but it just didn't click."
Siskel said that 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. When he mentioned walking out on Black Sheep in 1996, he said it was the first time he walked out on a movie he was reviewing since Million Dollar Duck in 1971; he later explained that he did not include Maniac because he did not review Maniac as an assignment for his newspaper or part of his and Ebert's weekly TV reviews but only as a "Dog of the Week", a feature of the TV show in which each critic would single out the very worst movie they had seen that week.
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; Siskel was sensitive to films about families and family relationships, and 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.
Following Siskel's death in 1999, Ebert wrote:
Gene was a lifelong friend, and our professional competition only strengthened that bond. I can't even imagine what will it be like without him. ...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.
Ebert once said of his relationship with 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 men 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 an Ebert review would read "an extremely well-written review".
At the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, after its in memoriam montage of deceased stars and film contributors (which did not include Siskel), host Whoopi Goldberg gave a brief impromptu tribute to Siskel:
I want to take a moment to acknowledge someone we lost too recently to include in our film tribute. He wasn't a filmmaker, but he definitely was a member of our film community. Now he clobbered some of us with a great big stick and sometimes he touched us with a velvet glove. I'm talking about Gene Siskel. He was a critic but more importantly, he really loved movies, so, Gene, wherever you are, honey, here's to you.
She included the iconic "thumbs-up" gesture; it received a great round of audience applause.
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