By Tom Gliatto
Updated November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

In the course of almost 25 years together reviewing movies, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel played off each other with the ease and occasional prickliness of an aging comedy team. With the 53-year-old Siskel’s death last February of complications from brain surgery, that relationship ended forever, and their syndicated TV show, Siskel & Ebert, has been rechristened Roger Ebert & the Movies. Yet Ebert, who that same month began offering his late colleague’s vacant chair to a series of guest critics, has preserved one touchingly silly ritual from the years with Siskel. Just before the cameras roll, Ebert, a man of dignity even when trashing turkeys, encourages his guest to loosen up by playing patty-cake with him and reciting, “Pease porridge hot/ pease porridge cold/ pease porridge in the pot/ nine days old.”

To expect any single critic to replace Gene Siskel, Ebert has concluded, would be as impossible as returning to childhood. “I miss Gene,” says Ebert, 57, who on Oct. 16 escorted the Chicago Tribune critic’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen Siskel, 47, as she accepted a special local Emmy honoring the two reviewers. “I’ll see something on the screen and know that if Gene were in this room, I would hear a chuckle—or a snort.” He especially misses the spark of their frequent clashes, such as the time 20 years ago when Siskel claimed Kramer vs. Kramer was better than Apocalypse Now. “I almost shouted on the air,” says Ebert.

Says his friend Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival: “I don’t think there’s any question Gene’s death was one heck of a blow for Roger.” Still, there was no question of ending the show. For one thing, giving himself up to his passion—which infuses his nationally syndicated reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times—was Ebert’s therapy. “He threw himself into work,” says his wife of seven years, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, 47, an attorney who helps organize Ebert’s annual festival of neglected films in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. To Ebert, of course, it was more than a matter of coping. “This show is necessary,” says Ebert, long a champion of such unusual movies as 1998’s little-seen Dark City, a futuristic fantasy. “It’s a real agenda for us,” he says, speaking as if Siskel were present.

Their mutual love for film bonded the rival Chicago newspapermen for more than two decades. In the first days of getting used to each other on air, “there was a lot of bad feeling,” admits Ebert. Once, he recalls, when the two were talking with old-time star Buddy Rogers, “he told us, ‘You guys have a sibling rivalry, and the problem is you can’t figure out who’s the older brother.’ ” With time, friendship prevailed. Although the two rarely socialized, “Gene was always the first person to call,” says Chaz, “to send flowers, to do or say something personal.” When she and Ebert were deciding in 1992 to buy their four-story Victorian home in Lincoln Park, Siskel gave it a thumbs-up. “We all decided on this one—together,” says Ebert.

But some boundaries were never crossed. Ebert, at Cannes in May 1998, was stunned to hear that Siskel, back home, had undergone surgery to remove a growth from his brain. When Siskel returned to work only weeks later, Ebert assumed he was on the mend. Then, on Feb. 4, 1999, Siskel announced he needed more time off. The show they taped on Feb. 10 was to be their last, says Ebert, “although I did not realize that.” Siskel died 10 days later, having kept the seriousness of his illness a secret from all but his wife and their two teenage daughters, Kate and Callie, and son Will, 4. Ebert respected Siskel’s need for privacy—”I was fine with that,” he says—but the shock hit him hard. Reality didn’t fully sink in until he attended a screening and saw that, in the chair where Siskel used to sit, someone had placed a single rose.

Yet today, in most respects, Ebert is content. “My glass was always full, but it’s been getting larger.” If his cup all but runneth over, it’s thanks to his wife, a divorced Chicagoan who in 1992 ended his run as one of the city’s most elusive bachelors. “A lot of us despaired that he would ever find a woman with the patience and forbearing,” says his friend TV commentator Jeff Greenfield, laughing. “Chaz is terrific.”

The couple met through friends in 1989 and instantly discovered they could talk effortlessly about books, travel, opera—and film. “Gene and I would laugh,” says Chaz, “because Gene would say Roger found someone like him.” Not exactly. “There’s a British beer that has an ad I used to look at in the subway in London,” says Ebert thoughtfully. “It said, ‘Refreshes the parts that others do not reach.’ And that was Chaz.”

They eventually settled into their book-crammed house with a mini-movie theater (and life-size Oliver Hardy statue) downstairs and a glass-enclosed workout room on top. (Thanks to exercise and the Pritikin diet. Ebert has dropped 50 lbs. since being with Chaz.) Although his wife says she had thought of adding “a little Roger” to the family, they have decided against children. “I don’t want to be going to high-school graduations when I’m 75,” says Ebert, an only child whose father, Walter, was 42 when he was born. Besides, he says, “I have three wonderful grandchildren”—ages 9, 6 and 2—by Chaz’s daughter Sonia. “The house is full for the holidays.”

If this sounds too mellow to be Ebert, his wife adds a note of clarification: “I don’t want people to think he has lost his edge.” Nor does he have any intention of retiring that famous thumb, as long as there are movies to love or loathe. “People ask, ‘Do you have too much power?’ says Ebert. “My answer is, ‘Not nearly enough.’

Tom Gliatto

Champ Clark in Chicago