By Fred Bernstein
August 20, 1984 12:00 PM

Gene to Roger (who’s overweight): Has your application for a zip code come through yet?

Roger to Gene (who’s balding): The only things the astronauts saw from outer space were Three Mile Island and your forehead.

Gene to Roger: Yeah? When they passed over your house, you were sunbathing in the garden and they thought they’d discovered a second moon.

Sometimes they sound more like Ebert and Costello than Ebert and Siskel. But that only adds to the appeal of TV’s At the Movies, the syndicated weekly half hour during which Roger Ebert (the round one) and Gene Siskel (the lean one) dissect Hollywood’s latest offerings—and sometimes each other. So successful is the combination that in L.A., where movie industry execs long for thumbs-up imprimaturs, the show airs three times a week. Altogether, 150 stations broadcast the program to an estimated 11 million viewers—popularity that translates into six-figure incomes for the critics.

Not surprisingly, media watchers wonder if the rivalry between them isn’t just a ratings-grabbing ruse. “Many journalists have tried to figure out what our relationship is,” says Siskel wryly. “But none of them has ever come close. The fact is, we can’t stand each other.”

Perhaps more precisely, “They are two men who never would have chosen each other for friends,” says Thea Flaum, who produced PBS’ Sneak Previews, where Gene and Roger made their debut eight years ago. “They have no natural affinity for each other. But TV has forced them to find a way to work together.” Indeed, when they left PBS for syndication in 1982, they agreed that Siskel would get top billing for the first two years of their four-year contract, and Ebert for the next two.

It was a minor treaty in a long and continuing war. When Siskel and Ebert aren’t taping At the Movies, which they do every Thursday afternoon, they are enemies in print. For 18 years, Ebert, 42, has toiled for Chicago’s Sun-Times, churning out reviews and movie-based interviews and essays. Siskel, 38, writes for the arch-rival Chicago Tribune. “The center of our lives is at the newspapers,” says Ebert. Adds Siskel, “We’re professional critics first, not TV performers. We don’t make jokes at the expense of the movies, like Gene Shalit, and we don’t do softball interviews—turning the camera on and letting the stars talk. We’re proud of our profession.”

Not to mention proud of themselves. Siskel, who did not attend last May’s Cannes Film Festival, boasts that he interviewed Harry Belafonte and Sergio Leone even before Roger saw their movies at the festival. Ebert complains, “He’ll go to any length to scoop me. It’s like he has a human being mode and a work mode.” But Ebert himself is hardly laid-back. In addition to filing daily dispatches from Cannes, he produced a documentary that aired in Chicago two and a half weeks later.

Back home they run into each other at the screening room, where they see about five movies a week together. Every Monday they decide over the phone which four films they plan to review on that week’s At the Movies. Then one of them—they take turns—orders up film clips for the program.

That’s it for mutual preparation. Until they show up in the studio at 1 p.m. on Thursday, neither knows what the other will say. They launch into their banter unrehearsed. If either makes a slip, they do a retake, which may be significantly different from what went before. After all, says Siskel, “We’re not actors saying the same lines over and over.”

Which isn’t to say they treat the show cavalierly. Though they usually spend about three hours taping the 30-minute program, they have been known to work until 8 p.m. to get it right. And if the final version of the show runs long, it’s the film clips—not the critics—that get trimmed.

Ebert, the senior partner, grew up chomping candy at the Princess Theater in Urbana, III. Planning to be a newspaperman, he majored in journalism at the University of Illinois, then started on a Ph.D. before the Sun-Times beckoned. In 1975 he became the only newspaper movie critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for his craft.

Siskel was raised in suburban Glencoe. He wanted to be a trial lawyer—it was courtroom dramas like Inherit the Wind that sparked his ambition. After studying philosophy at Yale and writing press releases in the Army, he went to work for the Tribune. “Part of the reason they gave me the job was to knock off Ebert,” he says. “I knew he was the big gun in town. He was and remains good. In fact, he’s the second-best film critic in Chicago. He’s also the world’s largest film critic.”

The two men’s habits are remarkably different. The slimmer critic is at work most mornings by 9, and for lunch Siskel grabs a quick sandwich at the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter near the Tribune’s ornate tower. Ebert arrives at his Sun-Times office at noon, then repairs to the artsy Cliff Dwellers Club, where he belongs as much for the help-yourself deep-dish blueberry pie a la mode as for the conversation. In his younger days, Ebert, who is now on the wagon, spent his evenings holding court at O’Rourke’s tavern. There, with the spirit of a wild Irish poet, a friend recalls, he would recite bawdy limericks and rail against the injustices of the world and, according to one report, young Siskel. Back then Gene was a regular visitor to the Playboy Mansion, where Hugh Hefner enticed him with an incredible collection of, er, movies.

Now Siskel is married to Marlene Iglitzen, his former producer at WBBM-TV, where he covers the movie beat. They and their 11-month-old daughter, Kate, share a $500,000, 10-room Chicago co-op. But, Siskel points out, “I drive a white Pontiac convertible with 92,000 miles on it.” At the core, he says, “Roger and I are still newspapermen, and newspapermen just are not very flashy.”

As for Ebert, his principal indulgences are a red BMW and a three-story Victorian house in the city’s Lincoln Park section, which Siskel says probably cost more than his place. Ebert spends his spare time gardening, tending his kitties, Sports Fan and Orange Cat, and reading the likes of William Carlos Williams, Nadine Gordimer and Edmund Wilson. But his own writing is not quite so highbrow: In 1970 he wrote the screenplay for the notoriously campy Russ Meyer film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Siskel and Ebert rarely socialize, which Gene thinks is a good thing. “That we remain separate till airtime is better for the program,” he says. Still, when Roger complained publicly that his co-star had “never even had me over to his place for dinner,” Siskel broke down and invited him. So has Ebert ever asked Siskel to his place? “Not for one of those six-to-eight-people-at-a-table dinners,” says Gene. “But I did go to a big cocktail party there—once.”