Roger Ebert, at left, and Gene Siskel, at right, are shown in this Chicago Tribune file photo from Feb. 1, 1995 when they were honored at a ceremony at the corner of Erie Street and McClurg Court. On that day the city put up a Chicago street sign that says "Honorary Siskel and Ebert Way." For 23 seasons these two native Illinoisans hosted a new genre of journalistic film criticism on a show that at one time reached 95 percent of all homes with TV sets in America. They helped to invent the new format for Chicago Public Television WTTW in 1975 and the program went national on PBS in 1978. It later went into commercial syndication under a different name. Both writers are profiled in brief below.
Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy-nominated columnist Roger Ebert is the first film critic to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was born in Urbana, Illinois on June 18, 1942 and grew up there. He was co-editor of his high school newspaper, The Echo, and a high school sports stringer for The Champaign News Gazette. In 1958, when Roger was 16, he won the Illinois High School Association state championship speech competition in Radio Speaking. He graduated from Urbana High School in 1960 and attended the University of Illinois where he was editor of The Daily Illini. Roger graduated from the University of Illinois in 1964 and won a Rotary International scholarship to study at the University of Capetown. He was a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago when he went to work for The Chicago Sun-Times as a film critic in 1967. Roger is still writing movie reviews at the present time including a recent review on The Queen. But he has been out of print and off TV for many months in 2006 while he has been recovering from surgery. He says he hopes to be back on TV early in 2007.
Gene Siskel was born in Chicago on Jan. 26, 1946. His parents, Nathan and Ida Kalis Siskel, both died when Gene was less than a year old. Gene was raised in Glencoe by his aunt and uncle, Joseph and Mae Gray. Gene attended public schools in Glencoe and became an early fan of movies. He attended the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana for his high school years and graduated from Yale University in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He served active duty with the U.S. Army Reserves at the U.S. Department of Defense Information School where he learned basic journalism by writing news releases. He was hired by The Chicago Tribune in January 1969 as a neighborhood news reporter. But much like Roger Ebert two years before at The Chicago Sun-Times, Siskel also found an opportunity to apply for a vacancy before the year was out and started working as a movie reviewer for The Chicago Tribune.
In 1974 and 1975, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were teamed up on a new TV show for WTTW Channel 11 called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. Gene has some prior TV experience doing reviews for WBBM-TV Channel 2. The Channel 11 show was renamed as Sneak Previews and went national on PBS in 1978. The format and tension between film critics from rival newspapers in Chicago was interesting TV that quickly went on 198 PBS affiliates and became the top entertainment show in the country. Siskel and Ebert left PBS in 1981 for commercial syndication at first with Tribune Entertainment, parent company of The Chicago Tribune at that time. Siskel had a temprorary break with Tribune editor Jim Squires when he and Ebert moved their show to management and distribution by Disney's Buena Vista Television a few years later.
At the height of the show's popularity, then named Siskel and Ebert, the potential audience was 95 percent of all TV homes in America. In 1980, Gene Siskel married Marlene Iglitzen who was a former producer of the 5 PM WBBM-TV newscast. Siskel met and became acquainted with her when he often appeared on that program. The Siskels had three children, Kate, Cali, and Will and lived north of Lincoln Park. Gene Siskel died on Feb. 20, 1999 after a battle with cancer. He is a member of the Broadcaster's Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1997 before his death. From 1972 until his death in 1999, Gene served on the advisory board of the Film School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The school at 164 N. State Street was officially renamed the Gene Siskel Film School in Gene's honor in 2001.
Roger Ebert dated Oprah Winfrey at one time and encouraged her to take her show into syndication. He married trial attorney Chaz Hammelsmith in 1983 and has a step daughter and step grandchildren. He continued the film criticism TV show with fellow Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper with a show called Ebert and Roeper. The show still has many fans but some believe it lacks some of the former tension that came from critics who worked for competing newspapers. In many film reviews and in other public activities and articles, Ebert has displayed his strong preference for liberal political ideas and for the Democratic Party in general, but not always. He praised Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ and has also given high marks and a trademark "thumbs up" to other films with conservative social values and old-fashioned moral themes in movies for children. Since 1999, Roger annually has hosted "Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival" in Champaign. Roger has bravely battled with cancer since 2002 and has recently said that he hopes to return to a full-time TV and review schedule early in 2007. His fans and friends of course wish him well.
One footnote: Roger Ebert has often been a critic of the film rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) which he feels is arbitrary and does not provide enough information that parents really want to guide their children. From 1984 to 1988, I was a visiting member of the editorial board at The Chicago Sun-Times. One summer day in 1984, I was researching an editorial on the topic of the MPAA system titled "Put more G in PG." My editor suggested I talk to Ebert on background which made sense even though the editorial page normally had little contact with the news pages or with nonpolitical columnists.
I walked down the hall to see Ebert and he briefed me on the general topic as we walked to his ATM at The Wrigley Building from the now demolished Sun-Times Building. Based on my talk with Ebert, I wrote in my editorial that the MPAA should create a new category called PG-12 for children under 12. A week or so later, the MPAA announced a new rating of PG-13. The comical part was I then heard a reliable rumor that it might have been age 12 but for my editorial since the MPAA directors did not want to be seen as following the exact suggestion of "Ebert's newspaper." Although that was not the first time we met, it was the only time on newspaper business. I appreciated very much his kindness and time for me as a rookie editorial writer and I add my personal hope to those of his many fans for his full recovery.