Whenever Gene Siskel turned to the camera after viewing a movie clip, TV viewers could see from his expression—bursting with excitement—that this was a man in love with movies. He was also in love with the Chicago Bulls. In June, just weeks after flying to New York City for surgery to remove a growth in his brain, he was back home in Chicago, leading a Bulls rally. He had pulled an NBA cap over his head, “and it was clear he wasn’t a hundred percent,” says his friend Tim Weigel, a local sportscaster. “But he was relishing the moment.” On Tuesday, it was the Bulls’ turn to pay tribute to Siskel with a minute of silence at the start of their game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Siskel & Ebert’s tall, skinny half had died Feb. 20 of what his family has described as complications from the May operation.
The critic, who never gave up his day job reviewing movies for the Chicago Tribune, may have been 53, says columnist and friend Bob Greene, “but, on his best day, he was like an 11-year-old kid. He wanted to see everything the world had to offer.” Most of all, he wanted to see movies. For nearly 25 years, he and rival Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, 56, bandied opinions—and occasional sharp words—in their breezy rundown of the week’s offerings, graded with their trademark thumbs up or down. They were entertainingly, quirkily stuck with each other, Siskel’s Jerry Seinfeld to Ebert’s George Costanza.
Their sometimes bristling interactions weren’t put on. They even kept track of whose turn it was to sit closest to David Letterman during joint appearances on his show. “We were competitive even right to the end,” says Ebert. “We both thought we were the other’s older or smarter brother.” Though the two rarely socialized, “nobody knew us better,” Ebert adds, “except for our wives.” Indeed, Siskel was famously close to his family. “Our friendship knew no bounds,” says his widow and wife of 19 years, Marlene Iglitzen, 46. “We were buddies, colleagues and lovers.” At the Feb. 22 funeral (attended also by Oprah Winfrey and her beau Stedman Graham), Ebert sat with Marlene and the couple’s daughters, Kate, 15, Callie, 13. (The family did not bring son Will, 4.)
Together, Siskel and Ebert were a powerhouse. As their ’70s local public TV hit Sneak Previews evolved into the nationally syndicated At the Movies and then into Siskel & Ebert, they became America’s most watched, most influential film critics, with some 3 million viewers. Very simply, “they connected with the audience,” says Kathleen Carroll, former film critic for the New York Daily News. In Hollywood, says Stepmom executive producer Ron Bass, “theirs were the first reviews you were concerned about.”
Siskel’s reactions could be unpredictable. His best movie of 1998? Babe: Pig in the City. And though he considered Citizen Kane the top film of all time, his personal favorite was 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. “I believe he saw it more than 17 times,” says Ebert. A few years later, Siskel even shelled out $2,000 to buy the John Travolta character’s white suit, which later fetched $145,500 at auction. Says Marlene, who loved shopping with him for art and antiques: “Gene was just thrilled to be in the presence of inspired work.”
Siskel didn’t live to review a movie he eagerly looked forward to—May’s Star Wars prequel. But his health held up long enough for him to praise daughter Callie at her January bat mitzvah. Moving with a walker, “he had difficulty remembering and putting things together in a flow,” recalls his friend Bill Kurtis, the former CBS morning anchor. “But it was an emotional little speech. He always seemed to cherish those moments that so many of us take for granted.”
A native Chicagoan, Siskel learned early about life’s fragility. Both his father, Nathan, and mother, Ida, died before he was 10; an aunt and uncle then raised him and his two siblings. After studying philosophy at Yale, he got a reporting job at the Tribune in 1969. After just seven months there, he became Ebert’s upstart rival.
Not surprisingly, both were wary of the idea, hatched by public station WTTW in 1975, of a show starring competing movie critics. Neither initially liked the “thumb” system, says Thea Flaum, the program’s first producer. Siskel also objected to the open-collared shirt and jacket that became his trademark. (“People don’t wear ties when they go to the movies,” Flaum had chided him.)
After his June surgery, the workaholic Siskel soon returned to his rigorous schedule, taping the show, writing reviews for the Tribune and TV Guide and appearing on CBS This Morning. His speech was slow. “However,” says Bill Kurtis, “we thought it was just a matter of time before ‘old Gene will be back.’ ” Siskel and his wife had made a pact, according to a friend, to keep the news of his worsening condition a secret from virtually everyone outside the family. But when he announced Feb. 4 that he was taking time off, friends grew worried. “He loved his work,” says Flaum. “The fact that he would stop gave me a cold, bad feeling.” He died 16 days later.
Minus Siskel, the fate of the show remains up in the air (Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales is a guest host the first weekend in March). The duo did not get the chance to tape their annual salute to the Oscars, which Siskel attended each year with Marlene. “I’d always look forward to sitting with them,” says L.A. screenwriter Nancy De Los Santos, a former Sneak Previews producer. “I can’t imagine going now. There’ll be that empty chair.” The one back in the studio, next to Ebert, will be even harder to fill.
Kelly Williams and Mary Green in Chicago and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles