During the late 1980s, when his movie review show with fellow film critic Roger Ebert was called “Sneak Previews,” Gene Siskel would occasionally take cat naps under the table in their station’s conference room.
One day, Ebert — not knowing Siskel was there — used the conference room phone to confirm an interview that would have him flying from Chicago to New York to speak with actress Nastassja Kinski.
After Ebert left the room, Siskel jumped up from under the table, grabbed the phone, and hit redial.
“‘Hello? Yes, this is Mr. Ebert’s assistant,” Siskel said when the publicist answered the phone. “Unfortunately, Mr. Ebert needs to cancel the meeting in New York. Thank you.”
That moment of petty sabotage is recounted in Matt Singer’s “Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever,” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons).
The new book makes it clear that the animosity the legendary film critic duo displayed on their hit show wasn’t cinematic fiction.
The two had a genuine, Windy City rivalry that never subsided — and made both of them better.
Ebert was hired as the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967.
When Siskel was hired in the same role for the Chicago Tribune two years later, Ebert saw it as a direct provocation, a view only enhanced when Siskel began copying Ebert and rating films using four stars.
“Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert saw each other as more than competitors; they were closer to mortal enemies,” Singer writes.
“Each considered it an essential aspect of their job to beat the other; to write the best review, to land the biggest interview, to score the best scoops. And they took their jobs very seriously.”
By the time a local television producer brought them together to propose a review show in 1976, the two had known each other for over six years but had never had a civil conversation.
Still, the allure of television was too great for them to refuse.
They soon debuted their show, then called “Opening Soon…at a Theater Near You” on Chicago station WTTW.
Later years would see their audience and salaries blossom as they evolved into national syndication, and their show’s name was changed to “Sneak Previews” and ultimately “Siskel & Ebert.”
Ebert remained pissed off about his second billing “for the rest of his days,” according to Singer.
The two slowly developed a friendship and even a sort of love for each other over several decades, but the one-upmanship between them always remained.
Siskel, a habitual gambler and Playboy Mansion regular would sabotage Ebert’s interviews in order to steal his scoops whenever possible.
He was such a wildly ambitious person that his roommate at Yale — a school with no shortage of extremely driven people — called him “the most competitive person I’ve ever run across — more so than Michael Jordan or Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
But the rivalry played a key role in their success, causing the sort of impassioned disagreements that made their show so fun to watch.
On their 1993 Academy Awards special “If We Picked The Winners,” Ebert was enraged when Siskel, in a discussion of the film “The Crying Game” — consider this your spoiler alert — revealed the film’s then-shocking twist that actor Jaye Davidson’s character Dil was a transgender woman.
“Ebert immediately scolded him for even thinking of doing such a thing,” Singer writes, “and after Siskel did reveal Dil’s identity, Ebert accused him of ‘cheating’ viewers out of one of ‘The Crying Game’s’ great pleasures.”
In an article about the disagreement in TV Guide, Ebert said, “The program is ‘Siskel & Ebert.’ A decision like that should have been discussed beforehand. It was arrogant of him.”
In response, Siskel “accused Roger of getting ‘as angry as a 50-year-old child’ before taking a shot at Ebert’s physical fitness,” Singer writes.
“Asked whether he was worried the two might come to blows over this ‘Crying Game’ incident, Siskel said, ‘That is not possible. There’s not enough motor coordination.’”
The animus between the two was never-ending and could be ignited by the slightest disagreement.
Siskel was several inches taller than Ebert, but on television, the two needed to appear to be equal in height.
Ebert was provided with a cushion to sit on, but Siskel felt slighted because he didn’t have a cushion.
“In Siskel’s mind, this was not fair,” writes Singer.
“The solution the crew eventually reached: Gene received a tiny cushion, while Roger sat on a much larger one. When ‘Siskel & Ebert’ traveled to Florida to record shows at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, the two pillows had to be shipped down to Orlando to ensure continued cushion parity.”
In time, the pair took to flipping a coin to resolve disagreements, but even that became a source of contention.
“If one of the men won a few flips in a row, that caused more arguments, along with accusations of cheating,” Singer writes. “Though he never proved it, Roger always suspected Gene had somehow acquired a weighted coin.”
But while the rivalry never truly subsided, proximity and their love of movies eventually led to mutual affection.
For their first appearance on the Johnny Carson-hosted “The Tonight Show,” in 1985, the pair were so nervous that for the first and only time in their lives, they shared a hug.
“They started playing the Tonight Show theme,” Ebert later revealed in a 1996 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and we were scared s–tless.”
In 1994, as guests of on the show during Jay Leno’s reign, the duo discussed how difficult it can be for an actor to profess love for another character.
Leno seized on the chance to prod the pair into proclaiming the same for each other.
“Siskel went first,” Singer writes.
“‘Roger,’ he said with surprising sincerity, ‘this isn’t going to be easy for me to say. My wife’s backstage. We’ve been happily married for almost 15 years. But I love you.’”
As the audience applauded, Ebert, now exhibiting a huge smile, answered.
“Gene, this is going to come as an enormous surprise to my wife, and to everyone else who knows us, but, big guy, I love you.”
“It might have been pitched as a comedy bit couched as an acting exercise, but Ebert and Siskel weren’t actors,” Singer writes.
“They couldn’t fake the kind of emotions they showed to one another on that ‘Tonight Show’ episode. Despite their legendary penchant for bickering, they really were starting to get along.”
Singer notes that the two began to warm to each other a bit throughout the 1980s, but that Ebert’s 1992 marriage to Chicago attorney Chaz Hammel Smith caused a major shift in Siskel’s attitude toward his partner, and even saw the pair begin to socialize as friends.
“Gene said he wanted the same happiness and sense of completion he felt with our life as a couple and family to be Roger’s own experience as well,” Marlene Iglitzen, Siskel’s wife, says in the book. “It definitely created a tighter bond between them.”
By 1990, the pair had gained such prominence in the film world that Spy Magazine declared them the two most powerful film critics — ranking Siskel at #1 and Ebert at 2, which ticked off Ebert something fierce — and Entertainment Weekly placed them, together, at number 10 on their list of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry.
Their reign as film critic legends lasted almost a quarter century. Siskel died of complications from surgery for a malignant brain tumor in February 1999 at age 53.
Ebert paid great tribute to his partner.
“Gene was a lifelong friend, and our professional competition only strengthened that bond,” he wrote in a statement. “As a critic, he was passionate and exciting. As a husband and a father, his love knew no bounds.”
Ebert continued the show with various hosts before enlisting journalist Richard Roeper as his new permanent partner.
Ebert himself was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and battled the disease for years before dying in 2013. He was 70.
Their legacy of candor and unflinching criticism lives on.
“Surrounded by phony chumminess, they cut through the bulls–t with unflinching honesty,” Singer writes.
“Sometimes they didn’t like the movies they were there to talk about. Sometimes they couldn’t stand each other. And when they couldn’t, they said it. They spared no one’s feelings. And in a world where everyone makes nice, that was refreshing — even thrilling.”