Remembering Gene Siskel -- The critic helped bring movie criticism to the masses

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated March 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Gene Siskel

He was one of the most powerful movie critics in the world. A mere flick of his thumb could alter a film’s fate at the box office. And yet, at the height of his fame, millions knew him simply as…the skinny guy.

Gene Siskel — who died Feb. 20 at 53, less than a year after having brain surgery — wasn’t always right (he gave Simon Birch a big thumbs-up) and wasn’t always tactful (he spoiled the surprise in The Crying Game), but there’s no denying he made a difference. With his on-air sparring partner, Roger Ebert (the not-so-skinny guy), he revolutionized the once-rarefied craft of film criticism, bringing reviews to the masses with the hugely successful TV series Sneak Previews.

”When we first started back in the 1970s, it was the era of happy talk on TV,” recalls Ebert. ”There wasn’t a lot of confrontation on the air. So the show really stood out. Today there are all sorts of talk shows with untelegenic guys yelling and screaming at each other. But we were the first.”

Tall, wiry, with a decidedly untelegenic hairline, Siskel (an occasional contributor to EW) was indeed an unlikely TV star. But from the moment the acerbic Chicago Tribune critic first took his seat across the aisle from Ebert (his archrival at The Chicago Sun-Times) for a local 1975 PBS show originally called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, the dueling duo were a hit. By 1982, they were so popular (Sneak Previews, a name adopted in 1978, was one of the most-watched PBS series of its time) they went commercial, launching a national syndicated version called At the Movies (later Siskel & Ebert).

Part of their appeal was that they did seem to hate each other; in fact, they were barely on speaking terms when their series began. ”Every parody of the show always ended up with the two of us on the floor pounding at each other,” says Ebert. ”Ultimately, though, we became good friends — good friends who were frequently exasperated by each other.”

But their bristly chemistry wasn’t the only reason millions tuned in: Siskel and Ebert dished about movies in a sort of casual, street-corner style that people who didn’t read Film Comment could relate to. While highbrow critics prattled on about mise-en-scene and cinematic deconstruction, Sisbert (as the pair were sometimes called) rendered their verdicts in the simplest of words — and even simpler hand gestures.

In the end, that plain-speaking formula made them Hollywood’s most influential critics. Yes, studios took The New York Times seriously for its ability to influence small-town newspaper reviewers, but an ad campaign boasting two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert had a direct impact on ticket buyers on opening weekend. Now that Siskel is gone (leaving a wife, Marlene, and children Kate, 15, Callie, 13, and Will, 4), it’s uncertain what will become of the series. Ebert says the show must go on — perhaps with different critics rotating in Siskel’s old chair — but it’s hard to imagine the curtain going up without the skinny guy in the aisle seat.