Thursday, February 25, 2021

Two Thumbs Six Feet Under


"This is one of those movies that is usually seen on the big Jumbo-tron screens in a sports bar during the day - when everyone is quite drunk.  Unfortunately, I was sober when I saw this movie."
  -- Gene Siskel on BASEketball (1998).

Eugene Kal Siskel was born in Chicago on January 26, 1946, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  By the time he was nine, they had both passed away, leaving an aunt and uncle to fill the void.

Despite the loss, Siskel excelled academically, eventually attending Yale University, where he majored in philosophy.  He also studied writing under John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who had covered the bombing of Hiroshima.  When Siskel graduated in 1969, Hersey provided him with a personal reference, helping him land his first job at the Chicago Tribune.

Shortly after joining the paper, Siskel wrote his first film review, covering the Walt Disney production Rascal.  Through this review, he landed the job of film critic for the paper, a position he would hold for the next three decades.

Sneak Previews (1975).
In those early years, Siskel developed a friendly rivalry with Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.  The two put that aside however in 1975, when they were first teamed together for the PBS series Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You, later renamed Sneak Previews, a movie review program.  They developed the now iconic ratings system of either "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," one that is often still parodied in pop culture to this day.  Even Facebook uses it.  Two years after it premiered, the series had proven successful enough in Chicago that PBS made it available to its sister stations, giving the film critics a new national audience.

Seeking a larger audience and an ever larger paycheck, the two parted ways with PBS in 1982, signing with Tribune Broadcasting for the new series At The Movies.  Other than the title, there was very little to distinguish this program from the original.  They'd stay with it until 1986, when they left yet again, this time signing with the Walt Disney Company for the new series Siskel & Ebert & The Movies.  So much for objectivity.

In May 1998, Siskel was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, for which he'd undergo emergency surgery.  Afterwards, he picked up right where he had left off, but it was pretty obvious to friends, family and the long-time viewers that the surgery had taken a toll.

Nine months later, he announced a leave of absence from the show, during which time he'd be undergoing more surgery.  "I'm in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I," Siskel joked.  Unfortunately, he'd never get the chance.

A few days after that second procedure, Siskel developed complications from which he'd never recover.  He passed away on February 20, 1999.  He was 53 years old. 

Gene Siskel was buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, Illinois.

Inscription: Loving Husband and Treasured Soul Mate
Devoted Father, Brother and Son
"Blessed is One Who Lived With a Good Name"
Hebrew Translation: Ben, Son of Napthali and Chaya 
GPS: Latitude 41.9561729
Longitude -87.8295212

Rest in peace, Gene.

  • If you stop by Westlawn to pay your respects, don't bother asking for directions.  The staff have been told by Siskel's family to keep visitors away.  Your best bet is to plug the coordinates into your GPS and make it to the grave on foot.

  • Siskel's final episode aired on January 23, 1999.  It included movie reviews for The Hi-Lo Country, Playing by Heart, The Theory of Flight, At First Sight and Another Day in Paradise.  I don't remember any of them either, but you can watch that final episode here.

  • Siskel's favorite film was Saturday Night Fever, so much so that he bought John Travolta's iconic white suit from the film.

  • Siskel often admitted that he had walked out of three films in his career - The Million Dollar Duck (1971), Maniac (1980) and Black Sheep (1996).  Curious?  Click on each title for its respective theatrical trailer.  And here's his review of the latter.

  • The closest you'll come to a Siskel biography is the 2012 book Enemies, a Love Story, by author Josh Schollmeyer.  It tells the story of how Siskel and Ebert met and how they eventually became partners.

  • Siskel and Ebert rarely appeared in Hollywood productions, believing it would undermine their professional credibility.  One notable exception however, was the animated Jon Lovitz sit-com The Critic.  You can watch that sequence on YouTube.  And in a case of life imitating art, the two critics reviewed the series on Siskel and Ebert.  

  • Siskel and Ebert paid a special visit to Sesame Street, where they explained the difference between "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" to a thoroughly confused Oscar the Grouch.  You can watch that segment on YouTube

No comments:

Post a Comment