From the early 1970s until his untimely death in 1999, Gene Siskel provided a unique voice among film critics. Combining his Midwestern roots with an Ivy league education, coupled with his infectious love of both mainstream American movies such as "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) as well as obscure foreign films such as "My Dinner With Andre" (1981), he helped usher in an era of pop culture criticism. Paired throughout most of his career with fellow Chicagoan critic Roger Ebert, their weekly television reviews shows made popular their infamous "thumbs up/thumbs down" style for more than a generation of filmgoers.
Born Jan. 26, 1946 in Chicago, IL, Siskel was a lifelong lover of film. When he was nine years old, both of his parents passed away so he was forced to move to the nearby town of Glencoe to live with an aunt and uncle. Siskel would spend his afternoons lost at the local movie house. During his teenage years, he attended Culver Military Academy in nearby Indiana, before moving on to Yale, at which he graduated in 1967 with a degree in philosophy. Having earned a public affairs scholarship, Siskel went on to work on a political campaign in California before switching gears and joining the Army Reserves. During his stint in the military, he was assigned to the Dept. of Defense Information School, where he wrote and edited news releases.
After being released from his military duties at age 22 - and newly armed with an insatiable interest in journalism - Siskel returned to Chicago and, in January of 1969, quickly found work as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune. Just as he was beginning his journalistic career, a more specialized opportunity opened up - the paper's film critic was taking a leave of absence and the post would need to be filled temporarily. Siskel reportedly leapt at the chance, drafting a memo to his editor in which he argued that the paper needed one critical voice instead of a revolving cadre of critics; that he would be ideal for the position. His initiative worked and he landed the job.
Siskel quickly cultivated a critical style that appealed to both patrons of the arts and working class readers, becoming popular enough to be invited to review for the local CBS television affiliate, followed by a locally produced television program called "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You." His co-host was Roger Ebert, critic for the rival newspaper The Chicago Sun-Times. The show eventually evolved into "Sneak Previews" (1978-1982), reaching a wider audience when it was picked up for national broadcast in 1978 by PBS.
Within a few years, thanks largely to their playful banter, the weekly show became one of the highest rated shows in public broadcasting. Part of Siskel and Ebert's unforeseen popularity grew out of their entertaining bickering on the show; and although their differences of opinion weren't as common as it would seem, they were often invited onto late night talk shows and encouraged to debate each other. Playing into their parts, they did little to dissuade the notion that they genuinely disliked each other in real life, although there was little evidence that this was actually true.
In 1981, both critics agreed to leave public television and create a similarly formatted show for commercial syndication. The new show was entitled, "At the Movies" (1982-86), and later "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies" (1986-1999). When they decided to renegotiate their contracts with Disney's Buena Vista Television, breaking off from show owner Tribune Entertainment, Siskel was fired from the Tribune newspaper and became embroiled in a very public feud with his former employer, before being reinstated. During this time, Siskel continued to co-host the show with Ebert, and along w/ his partner across the aisle, enjoyed seeing their show earn several Emmy nominations. Adding to his triumphs, in 1990, he was appointed the film critic of "CBS This Morning" (1987-1999).
In his rare down time, the avid sports fan held courtside season tickets for his beloved Chicago Bulls and was a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated and HOOP Magazine, as well as TV Guide. In front of the camera, the surprisingly funny Siskel appeared in a popular 1993 episode of "The Larry Sanders Show," (HBO, 1992-1998) in which, while playing himself, he gets into an argument-turned-fistfight with comedian John Ritter - all over the actor's reaction to Siskel's review of his performance in the middling comedy, "Skin Deep" (1989). Siskel made the news solo yet again, when he famously bid more than $2,000 for the iconic white suit worn by John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" - a film he unashamedly admitted he had watched 17 times.
In 1998, Siskel underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed. He announced in February of the following year that he was taking a leave of absence from his film criticisms, but that he expected to be back by the fall, humorously writing: "I'm in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I." The last film he viewed was the Sarah Michelle Gellar romantic comedy "Simply Irresistible." Shockingly, only two weeks after the operation, he died from complications from the surgery at the premature age of 53. Fans who had followed the bickering pairs' commentaries for years were shocked to see Ebert sincerely grieving for his supposed film foe, publicly disclosing how saddened he was that Siskel, who, during his illness, had mentioned to Ebert that he hoped to recover in time to see the "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace" (1999), had not lived to see it.
Following his onscreen partner's death, Ebert continued doing their show, first with a series of rotating substitute critics, before Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper was selected as Siskel's successor and the show was renamed "Ebert & Roeper." (2000- ). Siskel may have been gone, but proving he was not forgotten, not long after his death, the Film Center for the School of Art Institute of Chicago was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center. Siskel was also inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. Even filmmakers - often on the receiving end of a critic's ire - honored Siskel, when the Farrelly Brothers surprisingly dedicated their Jim Carrey comedy, "Me, Myself & Irene" (2000) to the memory of the beloved film critic.