One side of the balcony is closed

Appreciation: Film critic Gene Siskel had one of the most-respected thumbs in America. Just ask Roger Ebert.

February 22, 1999|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

Gene Siskel was not the most respected of American movie critics; he wasn't even the most accomplished half of "Siskel & Ebert" -- after all, Roger was the one with the Pulitzer Prize.

But Siskel had an intense love for movies, a passion that made him as much fan as critic. He once owned the suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever" and, for a wedding present, gave colleague Ebert Harpo Marx's horn. And his opinions were neither lowbrow nor high; if his yearly best-film picks included such critical darlings as 1997's "The Ice Storm," 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and 1975's "Nashville," he was just as sincere in defending his pick for 1998, the box-office dud (and critically ignored) "Babe: Pig In the City."

Partnered with the rotund Ebert (Gene was often referred to as the skinny one, or sometimes the bald one), Siskel helped make the American public care what the critics said, in ways more traditional critics like Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel never dreamed.

Siskel, who died in a Chicago hospital Saturday, nine months after brain surgery, first partnered with his cross-town-Chicago rival, Ebert, in 1975. Bitter rivals to that point -- "We intensely disliked each other," Siskel once said. "We perceived each other as a threat to our well-being" -- the pair were brought together by producer Gene Flaum at the local PBS television station.

"Those are two men who never would have chosen each other for friends," Flaum says of his role in bringing together America's favorite feuding couple. "They have no natural affinity for each other. But TV forced them to find a way to work together."

It's probably just as well the two men didn't start out as friends. They might not have been as willing to find fault with what the other said. And, from the beginning, find fault they did.

The duo went national in 1978, when "Sneak Previews" was picked up for syndication by PBS. Watching those early shows was often like watching those point-counterpoint sessions on "Saturday Night Live" that always turned on Dan Aykroyd saying to Jane Curtin, "Jane, you ignorant slut." Although they'd prod each other with fat and bald jokes during their talk-show appearances, the two never resorted to name-calling on their show. But the heated disagreements, over films ranging from the treacly "Six Weeks" to the futuristic "Dark City," left no doubt their different critical perspectives were genuine.

At first, at least, Siskel, clearly an inveterate movie lover, seemed the more accessible of the pair, Ebert more the student of film criticism. That may help explain why Roger wrote the books, won the Pulitzer and continued writing reviews, while Gene became more of a columnist than a critic for his paper, the Chicago Tribune, and specialized in quick-hit reviews for TV Guide and Chicago's WBBM-TV.

But pinning Siskel (or Ebert) down has never been easy. Just when you thought you'd figured what Siskel would think, he'd react unexpectedly. And, like any good critic, he'd then lucidly explain why.

The combination clicked with audiences from the start. For a time, Siskel and Ebert had the highest-rated show on PBS. In 1982, they went into commercial syndication.

Gene and Roger made it look easy. How difficult can it be to simply sit down and talk about movies for 30 minutes a week? But chemistry is hard to predict, and even harder to duplicate. Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved tried to pick up the pieces after Siskel and Ebert left "Sneak Previews," but they've never been able to match their predecessors' popularity. Rex Reed and Bill Harris (later replaced by Dixie Whatley) also tried, but failed.

It's hard to say exactly why Siskel and Ebert worked so well as a team. Some of the reason can be traced to Americans' fondness for skinny/thin combinations, a tradition that stretches all the way back to Laurel and Hardy (and before them to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand). And while the two men often disagreed with each other, they remained civil.

The pair also understood they needed each other, and became frequent guests -- always together -- of Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno. They particularly shone when seated alongside Letterman, who in one memorable skit, took them on a door-to-door tour of a New Jersey neighborhood.

Although the pair sometimes looked down their noses at television, often noting they weren't familiar with a film star's TV work, they weren't above resorting to gimmickry to attract a larger audience. For a while, they had a dog come on at show's end to introduce the "Dog of the Week," and later they brought in a skunk to introduce films they dismissed as stinkers.

In recent years, they've donned tuxes and taken to a stage at Walt Disney World -- their latest incarnation, "Siskel & Ebert," is syndicated by Disney -- to reveal their annual Oscar picks.

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