GENE SISKEL AND I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would vibrate at the same frequency. In a group together, we were always intensely aware of each other. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes mutual support, sometimes hostility. We were aware. If something happened that we both thought was funny but weren’t supposed to, God help us if one caught the other’s eye. We usually thought the same things were funny. That may be a sign of intellectual communion.
Gene died on February 20, 1999. He’s in my mind almost every day. He became less like a friend than like a brother. In 1977 we were on a talk show with Buddy Rogers, once Mary Pickford’s husband, and he said, “You guys have a sibling rivalry. Your problem is, you both think you’re the older brother.” Our image was of a state of permanent feud, but our feelings had nothing to do with image. We knew the buttons to push on each other, and we both made little effort to hide our feelings, warm or cold.
Once Gene and I were involved in a joint appearance with another Chicago media couple, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. It was a tribute to them. They were pioneers of free-form radio, even influencing the young Howard Stern. Gene and I were known for our rages against each other, and Steve and Garry were known for their accord. They gave us advice about how to work together as a successful team. Soon afterward Steve and Garry had an angry public falling-out that has lasted until this day.
Gene and I would never have had that happen to us. In our darkest brooding moments, when competitiveness, resentment, and indignation were at a roiling boil, we never considered it. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing. “You may be an asshole,” Gene would say, “but you’re my asshole.” If we were fighting, get out of the room. But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were lethal. Our first time on his show, Howard Stern never knew what hit him. He picked on one of us, and we were both at his throat.
We both thought of ourselves as full-service, one-stop film critics. We didn’t see why the other one was necessary. We had been linked in a Faustian television format that brought us success at the price of autonomy. No sooner had I expressed a verdict on a movie, my verdict, then here came Siskel with the arrogance to say I was wrong, or, for that matter, the condescension to agree with me. It really felt like that. It was not an act. When we disagreed, there was incredulity; when we agreed, there was a kind of relief. In the television biz, they talk about “chemistry.” Not a thought was given to our chemistry. We just had it, because from the day the Chicago Tribune made Gene its film critic, we were professional enemies. We never had a single meaningful conversation before we started to work on our TV program. Alone together in an elevator, we would study the numbers changing above the door.
Making this rivalry even worse was the tension of our early tapings. They were held together with baling wire by Thea Flaum, the PBS producer who created the original format. She dealt with us like children. Once when we got fresh coffee and were told we couldn’t take it into the studio, we ganged up and told her we wanted to drink it first. She had a mother’s diplomacy. “Start drinking it now and walk down to the studio slowly.” It would take eight hours to get one show in the can, with breaks for lunch, dinner, and fights. I would break down, or he would break down, or one of us would do something unexpected and throw the other off, or the accumulating angst would make our exchanges seem simply bizarre. There are many witnesses to the terror of those days. Only when we threw away our clipboards and three-by-five cards did we get anything done. We started ad-libbing and the show began to work. We found we could tape a show in under an hour.
At first the show was once a month, on the Chicago PBS station WTTW, and it was called Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. We sat stiffly in director’s chairs, holding clipboards, and seemed to have slipped onto TV from a local access channel. We had no chemistry. We barely had a relationship. Working to reinvent this stiff format, Thea threw out the chairs, put us in the balcony, and worked with us over her dining room table on Sunday nights. The show moved up to twice a month for its second year, and then become weekly. By the end at PBS, after raises negotiated by Thea, we were making $325 a program. At the time we left PBS for Tribune Entertainment, I think we would have stayed for $1,000, but PBS then, and even more now, didn’t have money like that.
As recently as this year, Thea observed, “Gene was a natural, but Roger was really bad at first.” If she’d told me that at the time, I would have collapsed. I had stage fright, I was alert to every disapproving nuance from Siskel, I could be thrown off by any distraction, I would dry up in the middle of a thought. I slowly got better. By the time the show went weekly, I had eased up, and then eventually it got to be easy, and a pleasure, and Siskel and I lowered our guards when we realized we’d gotten ourselves into something good.
People started recognizing us when we went out of town. “You boys will have no idea,” Thea told us after a few months. In 1980, we were contacted by Joe Antelo, a producer with a syndication arm of Tribune Entertainment, which had just started. He thought we had possibilities in commercial television. Gene told me we would need an agent and suggested his own, a Chicago lawyer named Donald Ephraim. I resisted the notion of signing with his agent. “If we don’t have the same agent,” he said, “it will be a disaster.” He was right in most business matters and very correct about that. He was also right to believe we should both always be paid the same salaries; different agents and salaries would have been impossible.
Don Ephraim, and later his firm Ephraim and Associates, including his sons Eliot and David, Joe Coyne, and the accountant John Foy, represented us from then on. Don, we found, was legendary for his attention to detail and once sent back a contract to Disney after finding that they had taken two-thirds of a cent and rounded it down instead of up. “It’s the principle of the thing,” he said, with an indignation I sometimes thought was acting. “If they go to the trouble of rounding it down, we can go to the trouble of rounding it up again.”
WTTW itself had decided to take us into commercial syndication. Don Ephraim went to talk to them and found the station viewed this move as primarily a way to make money for itself. They were unwilling to discuss salaries and profit participation. “In syndication you could be off the air in a few months,” Ephraim advised. “If you’re taking the chances, you should share the rewards.” WTTW made us a final offer. They hadn’t budged. We signed with Joe Antelo and Tribune and went up to WTTW to inform the station president, William McCarter. It was an incredible meeting. After Ephraim explained our decision, McCarter didn’t seem to understand we were really leaving. He began to suggest other salary possibilities. Ephraim interrupted: “You didn’t hear me, Bill. You gave us a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and we’ve left it. The negotiations are over. We’re gone.” McCarter seemed momentarily stunned, and there was a loud silence. He was a good man and an important figure in PBS nationally in those days, and we remained friendly; it wasn’t that he was stingy, I think, so much as that he couldn’t envision us daring to actually leave the PBS cocoon.
Gene and I received a lot of criticism for “betraying” PBS and selling out to commercial syndication. What few people understood was that WTTW had already decided to move us to syndication, and we simply did the same thing on better terms. McCarter saw clearly in those days that PBS needed more sources of funds than a trickle from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and pledge drives. He was the station executive who helped bring about the system of program sponsorship and underwriting, with its chaste announcements at the beginnings and ends of shows that were not supposed to feel like commercials. What most viewers probably have never understood is that most PBS programming is paid for by underwriting; pledge dollars go mostly toward running each station, and those who bring a program to PBS are expected to finance it themselves.
Now the future was in Joe Antelo’s hands. It was by then two months after the annual NATPE convention, at which syndicated television programs are bought and sold. Presumably there were no time periods still available. He knew he could bank on time slots in the markets where Tribune owned stations: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and others. Could he sell ads on this show? A handsome Cuban American who had once been a singer in Manhattan nightclubs, Joe was a born producer and salesman. He called us to a meeting at Ephraim’s office. “I walked next door from Tribune Tower to Leo Burnett,” he announced, “and they knew the show from PBS and liked it. I sold out all our time in one afternoon.”
We went into syndication that fall, after Joe lined up sixty or seventy markets to join the Tribune stations (except for their New York outlet, which wouldn’t stoop to carry a show from Chicago). The next January, he took us to NATPE to get more complete national market coverage. Joe forbade us to walk the floor unless we were together. “Together, you’re an advertisement,” he explained. “Apart, you’re shit.” People would ask, “Aren’t you those two guys?” Once when we were on an elevator, some people started whispering to each other and when we got off, Gene looked back and said, “We’re those two guys.”
Both of us were obsessed with our newspaper jobs. That was our identity. TV was part-time. We were competitive, but not equally competitive. Gene was the most competitive man I have ever met. Everything was an opportunity. At PBS, the camera crew played one of those gambling games where you throw little metal pigs on the floor and bet on how many of them land on their feet. I never understood it. They gambled for nickel stakes. One day Gene said, “Let’s make it more interesting” and suggested raising the stakes to a quarter. Then he started to win every game. There was no way he was cheating. Gene had taken the pigs home with him and mastered the game. Another time on an airline flight, we were sitting next to each other playing gin rummy, and for once I succeeded in making the right play and Gene threw his cards down on his tray table so hard they flew all over the aisle. We never played gin again.
We went to Vegas a lot for conventions and speeches (Steve Wynn even paid us to review twelve employee-of-the-month films for the Mirage). Gene had scorn for games of chance. I never saw him play one. He would gamble only on poker and horse racing. He didn’t believe in spending his money on luck. The belief was deeply ingrained that he could figure things out and outsmart the odds. He claimed he was a lifetime net winner. I found that unlikely. His horse-betting buddy was Johnny Morris, the Chicago Bears star who worked with him at Channel 2. Morris was also said to be a gifted bettor. I was told by a third party that they were both, in truth, successful. I asked Gene what his rules were. “There is only one rule: Never play a hunch.”
In Vegas, I played the five-dollar poker tables but Gene was in the more expensive section of the room. At his bachelor party, he swept the tables with his winnings. At my bachelor party, he was a big loser. I asked him what went wrong. “Your friends don’t know how to play poker. A good player can never win against someone who makes a bet just for fun.”
He had season tickets for the Bulls going back to the late 1970s, when he told me they were a “good young team.” When Michael Jordan joined the team in 1984, Gene began to follow Jordan and the Bulls with a passionate intensity. He even bought front-row tickets—not cheap, but more important to Gene than a new car. He was a fan, but not a mindless fan. He became a student of the game. He looked in basketball for the kinds of “tells” a poker player looks for. He said Jordan was better at reading another player’s tells than anybody else in the game.
He asked Coach Phil Jackson, “Why does Dennis Rodman almost always miss the first free throw?”
Jackson said, “Why do you think?”
Gene said, “For some reason, he thinks he has to.”
Jackson nodded thoughtfully.
“He didn’t tell me what he thought,” Gene said. “A good coach would never do that.”
We left Tribune because of an oversight and a coincidence. We went to NATPE in New Orleans that year without our new contracts having been offered by Tribune—not Joe Antelo’s doing. “Technically,” Ephraim told us, “they shouldn’t be selling you next year if they don’t have you under contract.” Gene printed a little card that read WORKING WITHOUT A CONTRACT and pinned it inside the lapel of his jacket. He did it to kid Antelo and the Tribune guys.
That first evening, walking out of our hotel (“always together!”) we ran into Jamie Bennett, a program executive Gene had known at CBS/Channel 2 in Chicago. He flashed his joke card to Jamie, who said, “You boys ever been to Brennan’s?” He took us to dinner, questioned us about our contract situation, and said he was working for Disney to start a new syndication division, Buena Vista Television. At that dinner a deal was discussed, Ephraim firmed up the details, and we left Tribune for Disney and its powerful base of owned and operated stations. “I would have done the same thing,” Joe told us.
We kept leaving titles behind. Sneak Previews stayed at PBS. At the Movies stayed at Tribune when we went to ABC’s Buena Vista. Gene had the idea of renaming it Siskel & Ebert so it couldn’t be recycled without us. At one point all three shows were coming out of Chicago, making it improbably the TV film criticism capital of the world. We were at Disney the rest of Gene’s life, and I worked there with Richard Roeper until 2006.
Gene was formidably well informed. It was a sort of armor. He made it his business. He knew the best restaurants, but that was child’s play. He knew fine art and antiques. He knew things like the best tuna-salad sandwich in Los Angeles (the Apple Pan) or the best Italian beef sandwich in Chicago (Mr. Beef). We agreed that Father & Son made the best thin-crust pizza in Chicago. We agreed that deep-pan “Chicago style” pizza wasn’t worth the time of day. Gene knew the safest family cars, and those were the only ones he drove. He knew the best school for his children. I never thought of buying a place to live without asking his advice.
When Chaz and I were looking at a house, we asked him to check it out. He walked through the house briefly and said, too quickly I thought, “Don’t buy it.”
We asked why not. “I don’t like the skylight,” he said.
What’s wrong with it? “From their windows,” he said, “your neighbors can see you walking to the bathroom.”
He was a bachelor when I first met him, living in an apartment that was said to resemble a resale shop. I never saw it. Few did. McHugh played poker there once, but when I asked him if it was a mess, he said he didn’t notice. Gene once won a TV set from Johnny Morris on a bet. Morris bought the largest and heaviest radio-TV-phonograph he could find and had it delivered. The moving men dumped it inside the door, and I learned it was never moved. The door would only open halfway, and visitors had to squeeze through.
Gene began to appear at screenings with a young woman, which filled us with curiosity because he was not known for bringing dates to screenings. This was Marlene Iglitzen. She was working for CBS in New York, but I learned they’d met when she was a producer on the CBS Chicago evening news, and Gene was doing their movie reviews.
Marlene was smart, funny, and pretty. It became clear Gene was serious. Although they’d met a few years before, they’d never dated until after she moved to New York. Now it became clear he would sooner or later have to invite her to his bachelor’s pad, and he asked his sister to clean it up “just enough so I can have a cleaning person come in.” I gather it wasn’t filled with rotting Kentucky Fried Chicken or anything. It was simply filled with everything he had ever brought home and put down, still there wherever he first put it, and never dusted.
There was always a little of the Yale undergraduate in Gene. Tim Weigel, his roommate there and later a CBS Chicago sportscaster, told me Gene was known for wearing a Batman costume and dropping out of trees. He studied philosophy, considered law school, decided to take some time off first. “I told my dad I thought I’d like to try a job in newspapers,” Gene said. “He said he’d give me a ride downtown. We had always been a Sun-Times family. For some reason, I never knew why, he dropped me off in front of Tribune Tower.” Less than a year after walking in the door, he was the Tribune’s film critic.
He got his second job, as the movie critic of the CBS Chicago news, because the newscast was bring reformatted to resemble a newspaper city room. Van Gordon Sauter from the old Chicago Daily News became the executive producer and recruited Gene on the theory “Don’t hire someone because they look good on TV; hire them because they cover a beat and are the masters of it.” Gene said that was the reason for the success of our show: We didn’t look great on TV, but we sounded as if we might know what we were talking about.
When Gene first met Marlene Iglitzen, “we fought like cats and dogs,” she told me. She moved to CBS in New York. He started to see her in New York, and when she was visiting her family in Chicago he would bring her to screenings. I don’t recall him ever bringing any other dates to screenings. I sensed she was the one. Once we were all in a car in New York and Gene said he wanted to show me the holy place where he had proposed marriage to Marlene. This was on Second Avenue.
“There it is, right on the corner,” Gene said, taking Marlene’s hand tenderly.
“The Pizza-Fotomat?” I said.
“My darling Gene,” Marlene said.
He had discovered the right woman. Thea Flaum said to me not so long ago, “Gene could sometimes be difficult to deal with. Well, you both were. Marlene is a smart woman. She worked in TV news. I wondered how it would work for her being married to Gene. Rog, after I saw them together for a while, I came to the realization that in the most important ways they were the same person.”
Miss Iglitzen kept her name. “When I introduced Marlene to Mel Brooks,” Gene said, “Mel asked her, ‘What was it before you changed it?’ ” They had two daughters, Kate and Callie, and a son, Will. The girls were flower girls at our wedding. They followed Gene to Yale, and Will seems to be headed there. The Siskels threw a party for us before Chaz and I were married. We remember the party before Gene and Marlene were married. There was a mentalist who told me everything in my own wallet. This was astonishing; I knew my wallet had been in my pants during the whole party.
“How does he do that?” I asked Gene.
“I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one thing,” Gene said. “He couldn’t tell me what was in my wallet.”
Once we were invited to speak to the Harvard Law School Film Society. We walked into their mock trial courtroom armed with all sorts of notes, but somehow we got started on a funny note, and the whole appearance became stand-up comedy. Separately or together, we were never funnier. Even the audience questions were funny. Roars of laughter for ninety minutes. I’m not making this up. I don’t know what happened. Afterward Gene said, “We could do this in Vegas. No, I’m serious.” He was always serious about things like that.
The night after that appearance we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. “I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion,” Gene told me. “He said it wasn’t necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave. The importance of Judaism isn’t simply theological or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue.” This was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
In early 1998, I began to notice that Gene sometimes got things out of order; strange, for a man who was always alert and precise. We emceed an awards show with a dozen categories, and Gene asked me to brief him every time we went onstage. In April of that year, we were the guests of honor at a benefit gala for Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. It marked the twenty-third anniversary of the show. “Why the twenty-third?” I asked Chaz. “Why not the twenty-fifth?” We decided maybe the museum needed the money.
That night, Gene addressed a lot of his remarks to his family, seated at a table right in front of the stage. He told them things they should be sure to tell Will when he grew older. He mentioned some of his values. He spoke of their education, and the importance of finding a job you love. I took quiet notice of that.
Not long after, Jay Leno brought his show to Chicago and we were booked to appear. In the limo going out to the Rosemont Horizon, Gene said he had an unbelievable headache. Backstage, they found a darkened room and a cool cloth for his eyes and gave him some Advil. We were supposed to judge a contest of Jay look-alikes. “My headache is too bad to focus on it,” he told me. “You do it and I’ll agree with everything you say. You can looked amazed. We can make it a shtick.”
After the show, Stuart Cleland, our executive producer, said, “Gene, I’m taking you to a hospital.” Gene refused. “Nothing doing. I’m going to the Bulls game.” His team was in the playoffs. Chaz and I watched the game on TV and saw Gene in his usual seat on the floor. A day or two later, we heard that Gene had gone into Northwestern Memorial Hospital for some tests. We flew to the Cannes festival, and Stuart called us in France: “Gene is having surgery.” We wanted to call and send him flowers. “I don’t know where he is,” Stuart said. “He didn’t tell me.”
We later found out it was Sloan-Kettering in New York. There was a statement that Gene had undergone tests and was recovering after a procedure. Gene took some time off (together we chose Tom Shales of the Washington Post to sit in for him). When he returned to the show, he was obviously ill, but we never discussed his health, except to agree that he was recovering—recovering from what was never said.
I understood this at the time, and understand it better now. Gene was a competitor. He knew all about odds, and they were against him. But from that summer through the following February, he continued to attend screenings and do the show. He was often in his seat at Bulls games. What he went through, only Marlene knew. He spoke to his family about his illness, but to no one else, not even his best friends. He was unhappy when the Tribune ran an item saying his recovery was “on schedule.” He asked, “What schedule? Whose schedule?”
Before his final shows, the studio was cleared so that his nephew could help him walk onto the set and take his seat. No mention was made of his illness. He taped his last program a week or two before his death. His pain must have been unimaginable. But he continued to do his job, and I never admired him more. Our eyes would meet, unspoken words were between us, but we never discussed openly his problems or his prognosis. That’s how he wanted it, and that was his right. In a way, we had our talk that night in Cambridge. We talked about what mattered.
We once spoke with Disney and CBS about a sitcom to be titled Best Enemies. It would be about two movie critics joined in a love/hate relationship. It never went anywhere, but we both believed it was a good idea. Maybe the problem was that no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love.