Eugene Kal Siskel
January 26, 1946
|Died||February 20, 1999 (aged 53)|
Evanston, Illinois, U.S.
|Resting place||Westlawn Cemetery|
|Alma mater||Yale University|
|Occupation||Television journalist, film critic|
|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 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.
His first print review was for the film Rascal, which was written one month before becoming the Tribune's film critic. Siskel served in the US Army Reserve, graduating from basic officers training in early 1968; he was a military journalist and public affairs officer for the Defense Information School.
In 1975, Siskel teamed up with Roger 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. 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, the 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 Ebert would refuse to guest-star in movies or television 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. Entertainment Weekly chose his performance as one of the great scenes in the year's television.
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. On the other hand, 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 had walked out on a movie he was reviewing since 1971 (the aforementioned Million Dollar Duck) and later explained that he did not include Maniac (which he also did walk out on) because he did not review Maniac as an assignment for his newspaper or part of his and Ebert's weekly TV reviews; it was included on the show only as a "Dog of the Week", a feature that lasted for years on the TV show where each critic would single out the absolute worst movie they had seen that week.
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 #1 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. Interestingly, Roger Ebert gave a "thumbs up" to all of the films that fit the Siskel #1/did not make Ebert's Top 10 list category, and the only Ebert #1 film of the year that Siskel did not like was, famously, Apocalypse Now.
Siskel compiled "best of the year" film lists from 1969 to 1998, which helped to provide an overview of his critical preferences. His top choices were:
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 Roger Ebert 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 movies that became box office champs and went on to be considered mainstream classics: Poltergeist, 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. Stating directly to 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).
Prior to marrying Siskel, his wife, Marlene Iglitzen, was 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. He announced on February 3, 1999, that he was taking a leave of absence, but that he expected to be back by 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 another surgery on February 20, 1999, at the age of 53. The last film that Siskel reviewed on television with cohost Ebert was The Theory of Flight on January 23, 1999. The final film that he reviewed in print was She's All That, to which he gave a favorable review.
Following his death, his long-time partner Ebert wrote:
Gene was a lifelong friend, and our professional competition only strengthened that bond. I can't even imagine what it will 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.
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. 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. However, he had changed his opinions on films years after his initial review, such as Tremors, which he gave a negative review to in 1990 but later gave the film a glowing positive review in 1994, stating "I wasn't sure what I missed the first time around, but it just didn't click."
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, and 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.
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 asked what he thought was the biggest difference between him 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".[This quote needs a citation]
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:
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 was 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.