Gene Siskel

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 popular movie review programs on television from 1975 to 1999.

Gene Siskel
Siskel in 1989
Eugene Kal Siskel

(1946-01-26)January 26, 1946
DiedFebruary 20, 1999(1999-02-20) (aged 53)
Resting placeWestlawn Cemetery
ResidenceChicago, Illinois
EducationCulver Academies
Alma materYale University
OccupationTelevision journalist, film critic
Years active1969–1999
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)
Home townChicago, Illinois
Marlene Iglitzen (m. 1980)

Early life

Siskel was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was the son of Ida (née Kalis) and Nathan William Siskel.[1] His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Siskel was raised by his aunt and uncle after both his parents died when he was ten years old.[2] 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.[3]


His first print review was for the film Rascal, which was written one month before he became the Tribune's film critic.[4] Siskel served in the US Army Reserve, graduating from basic officers training in early 1968 and serving as a military journalist and public affairs officer for the Defense Information School.[5]

Teaming up with Ebert

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.[6] In the episode, Siskel and Ebert split and each wants Jay Sherman, the eponymous critic, as his new partner.[7] 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.


Siskel was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor on May 8, 1998.[8] He underwent brain surgery three days later.[9] 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."[3]

Siskel died from complications of another surgery on February 20, 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 the Freddie Prinze Jr. romantic comedy She's All That, which he gave a favorable review.[10][11]

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."[12]


Siskel was a diehard 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.[6]

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.

One of his 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.[13] Another all-time favorite was Dr. Strangelove.[14] A favorite from childhood was Dumbo, which he often mentioned as the first film that had an influence on him.[15] 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.[16]

Siskel compiled "best of the year" film lists from 1969 to 1998, which helped to provide an overview of his critical preferences.[17] His top choices were:

From 1969 until his death in early 1999, he and Ebert were in agreement on nine 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 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

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".

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: "Gene, honey, wherever you are, here's to you." She included the traditional "thumbs-up" gesture; it received a great round of audience applause.[20]

See also


  1. "He Changed The Way We Look At Movies - tribunedigital-chicagotribune". 1999-02-21. Retrieved 2015-07-15.
  2. Farewell To Siskel Honors Private Side Of Public Man Chicago Tribune, Februari 23 1999
  3. McG Thomas, Robert Jr. (February 21, 1999). "Gene Siskel, Half of a Famed Movie-Review Team, Dies at 53". The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2019.
  4. "Chicago Tribune List of Siskel Reviews (Notes Rascal as First Print Review)". October 15, 1999.
  5. Manning, Sean (June 30, 2014). "Siskel & Ebert: Secret Ladies' Men". Esquire.
  6. Siskel & Ebert episode: "Tribute to Gene Siskel"
  7. "Episode summary: The Critic - Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice".
  8. Life Itself. Dir. Steve James. Part. Roger Ebert and Chaz Ebert. Magnolia, 2014.
  9. "Gene Siskel". Retrieved 2015-07-15.
  10. Siskel, Gene (January 29, 1999). "She's All That Review 29-Jan-1999". Chicago Tribune.
  11. "Chicago Tribune List of Siskel Reviews (Notes She's All That as Last Print Review)". October 15, 1999.
  12. Perrone, Pierre (23 February 1999). "Obituary: Gene Siskel". The Independent.
  13. Calhoun, Bob (1999-03-07). "Ebert review". Retrieved 2015-07-15.
  14. Davis, Patty (1999-02-22). "Funeral plans announced for film critic Gene Siskel". CNN. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  15. Grobel, Lawrence (January 1991). "Playboy Interview: Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert". Playboy. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  16. "At the Movies - Trivia". IMDb. 1996-02-10. Retrieved 2019-07-04.
  17. "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969-1998)". 2012-05-03. Retrieved 2015-07-15.
  18. Berardinelli, James (February 22, 1999). "A Thumb Falls Silent: A Short Tribute to Gene Siskel". Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  19. "Remembering Gene". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2013-02-07.
  20. "Oscar Night Salute To Siskel Was All Whoopi". Chicago Tribune. March 23, 1999.
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