Feisty film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert opened the balcony Oct. 12, 1978.

By Brian M. Raftery
Updated October 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

It began as a fight club, PBS-style: two glib, sweater-clad Chicago writers debating — and agitating — each other over the latest movies while seated in a spare faux-theater set. And with the Oct. 12, 1978, launch of Sneak Previews, thumb-flexing pundits Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert became marquee names, turning film criticism into a glamorous — well, almost — profession.

The duo spent three years gathering steam for their national bow; in 1975, Chicago station WTTW had paired the dueling scribes for the then-monthly Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. But Sneak Previews — which would become PBS’ highest-rated half- hour series — gave the Midwestern movie mavens a national audience, showcasing their knack for combining cinematic insight with heated cross talk and adding a new dimension to their print rivalry (Siskel wrote for the Chicago Tribune, while Ebert won a Pulitzer in 1975 for his work in the Chicago Sun-Times).

”Gene and I started out acutely uncomfortable on television,” Ebert says. ”We struggled in the early years to figure out how to talk, when to listen, when to shut up, and when to interrupt.”

”In the early days, I would tell them to take it down a notch, because it could be unpleasant,” says Thea Flaum, who produced the show until 1984. ”They were true competitors. They didn’t even like sharing an elevator on the way up to the screening room, let alone share a TV show.”

Though their arguments ranged from filmic faux pas (”Gene never let me forget that I gave thumbs up to Cop and a Half,” Ebert says) to more personal matters (Siskel would goad Ebert about his weight, while Ebert would remind Siskel of his half-moon hairline), Ebert says ”there was always an underlying respect and affection and love.”

When the two took their show into syndication in 1981 — renaming it At the Movies — their public bickering brought them even more exposure, enabling them to champion their favorite celluloid causes. Smaller films — including 1981’s My Dinner With Andre and 1994’s basketball documentary Hoop Dreams — often benefited from their constant, heartfelt campaigning.

Such passion for movies and the people who make them was not lost on Hollywood. When Siskel died last Feb. 20 at the age of 53, nine months after surgery to remove a growth on his brain, the entertainment community mourned him as a friend. ”We’re both very opinionated, but we liked that about each other,” Spike Lee told Premiere magazine after Siskel’s death. ”That was the good thing about our friendship: It wasn’t based on whether they liked my movies or not.”

For his part, Ebert is filling the empty seat with a rotating panel of critics (a feature that will become permanent this fall when the show is renamed Roger Ebert & the Movies), conceding that ”it may never be right to have a regular co-host.” Regardless, the balcony will never be the same.