Growing up with WGN TV and PBS, Sunday nights provided an opportunity to get extended clips of films coupled with commentary from the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and the now late Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. They rarely agreed, but their “thumbs-up” or “thumb-down” ranking system was nothing short of iconic as they reviewed each week’s new releases.
Often referred to as the “skinny one” and the “fat one”, few thought, as Roger Ebert got bigger each year, that it would be him that outlived his compatriot. But he did by quite a few years. Gene Siskel died in 1999, from complications that arose after having a growth removed 10 months earlier.
Following his death, Ebert quipped, “I remember after we first started out, and we were on a talk show and this old actor Buddy Rogers said to us, `The trouble with you guys is that you have a sibling rivalry.’ We did. He was like a brother, and I loved him that way.”
Early in his career, Siskel was less magnanimous, “We intensely disliked each other. We perceived each other as a threat to our well-being.”
While both were excellent print journalists in their own right it was their TV work together that set them apart. Ebert earned the first Pulitzer Prize awarded for film criticism.
Beginning like something you might see on Public Access, the show became more popular with each season, taking a new name, “Sneak Previews,” and gaining a national audience when it was syndicated on PBS in 1978 and where it would become for a time the most highly rated show in PBS history. In 1982, the pair signed with Tribune Entertainment and renamed the program “At the Movies.”
Following the death of Siskel, Roger Ebert teamed with Richard Roeper on the show “Ebert & Roeper & the Movies,” though for most the magic was gone.
When Roger Ebert suffered post-surgical complications for his thyroid cancer and was unable to speak he left the show in 2008 and continued his print criticism and began work on his memoir….“Life Itself: A Memoir.”
Speaking about the book in 2011, Ebert said, “I didn’t intend for (my blog) to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way,” he wrote in the book. “Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog form. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.”
The book is nothing less than an irreverent look at his life, bouts with alcoholism, brushes with celebrity, and romantic interludes with his wife Chaz who survives him.