The Original Frenemies
An oral history of Siskel and Ebert.
Photograph by Victor Skrebneski © 1986.
Today the Chicago Sun-Times reported that its renowned film critic Roger Ebert passed away after a long battle with cancer. In recognition of his life and achievements, we reprint below excerpts from an oral history of his legendary partnership with fellow film critic Gene Siskel, originally published in 2012 in the first issue of the Chicagoan.
Gene and Roger were on a flight one time, and Gene handed a piece of paper to a flight attendant and said, “Please give this note to Roger.” The note read, “Mr. Ebert, would you like to see the cockpit?” Gene had signed it, “The Captain.” Roger was quite pleased that the captain would invite him—and not Gene—to tour the cockpit. He walked up to the cockpit door and started knocking on it. All of a sudden, another flight attendant grabbed him and scolded, “You can’t go in there! Nobody goes in the cockpit!” She had to escort him back to his seat. Gene was rolling up and down the aisle with laughter. (NS)
Roger now says, “We fought like cats and dogs, but we always loved each other.” I think the real story is that they grew to like each other, but they always fought like cats and dogs. (MP)
They were the original frenemies. (AP)
You’d go to big parties for the show, and Gene would be on one side of the room holding court and Roger would be on the other side talking to a totally different group of people. (MB)
Given the types of people they were, they never would have chosen each other as friends. (TF)
Their relationship never was, “Come on over to the house for Sunday dinner.” Their social lives and interests were too different. Gene loved the Bulls and sports while Roger spent his free time teaching film classes at the University of Chicago.1 (ND)
For the longest time, Roger lived by himself with his cats. Gene and his wife, Marlene, on the other hand, had this gorgeous apartment filled with amazing Art Deco furniture. (JA)
They were like a couple of fucking cartoon characters. If you drew them, you couldn’t quite do the real thing justice—especially in the early days with those 1970s clothes. They didn’t look alike, they didn’t sound alike, and they didn’t think alike. They both had a much different delivery—Roger more contemplative and Gene kind of pushy. Plus, Gene was so much more palpably opinionated than Roger. Roger seemed to offer an opinion; Gene jammed his opinion down your throat. (RK)
The temperature of their relationship could be judged by each week’s show. When they got along, they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and laughed at the other’s jokes. But when they feuded, their jibes could come across as angry or spiteful. (SC)
I went to a few tapings before I took the job as executive producer in 1987. A majority of them lasted at least four hours because Gene and Roger couldn’t stop arguing. (LD)
They would literally argue about everything—from the lineup of movies to the graphics to who would talk first. At the beginning, I was sort of in shock. I thought, “They don’t do anything but argue! It’s exhausting.” (MK)
It was important for every executive producer to carry a quarter with them because the quarter was the agreed-upon currency for reaching consensus when there wasn’t any. The flip determined who sat next to Johnny Carson all the way down to where we would order lunch on a particular taping day. (DL)
You needed to agree ahead of time, however, about what was being resolved by the flip. For instance, if the issue was which critic should speak first at a lecture, did winning the toss mean that the winner would go first? Or did it mean that the winner had the option of choosing which critic would go first?2 (SC)
Do you know how long it initially took us to produce At the Movies? Six hours! They would argue incessantly. If Roger talked for four minutes of a six-minute segment, Gene would holler, “That’s not right!” The same thing happened whenever Gene would talk longer than Roger. They demanded that the other didn’t get one more second of screentime. (JA)
The worst was when we had to reshoot a cross-talk segment because a crew member made a technical gaffe. Now, Gene and Roger knew what the other one was going to say about the movie they were reviewing. That started a cascade of, “You wouldn’t have thought of that line if you hadn’t already known what I was going to say!” (DL)
At PBS, the crew always suspected that if either Gene or Roger made a better point during the cross-talk, the other would bungle the readout of it on purpose, forcing them to do it over again. (MM)
I forget the context of the show, but at some point we did a segment on the Clint Eastwood movie [The] Gauntlet. Gene insisted that there was an alternate pronunciation of the word gauntlet, which was “GANT-LET.” Consequently, every time he referenced the movie in his copy, he pronounced it GANT-LET, probably to get a psychological edge on Roger. And with Gene, it would be like water torture; he would never stop. Roger became very angry. We had to stop the taping for an hour in order for him to calm down. (GH)
Gene always jabbed at Roger. He found it irresistible. But Roger was just as witty so he would give it right back. (TF)
I have outtakes of Gene and Roger going after each other. Gene says, “Roger has to move. Crane please!” And Roger retorts, “Makeup—more hair!”3 (RS)
It killed Gene that in the earliest days of Sneak Previews, he had to introduce Roger to viewers as the Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Instead, every week he would come up with a new insult for his and the staff’s amusement. My personal favorite: “Seated to my left is Roger Ebert, film critic for the Las Vegas Shopper News.” (JD)
As the years went by, Gene would say, “My God, what have you done lately?” (LD)
Gene was never the natural-born writer Roger is. Roger can write thousands of words a day without any trouble; Gene agonized over his writing. (RF)
He played every single deadline down to the wire. We had to drag him to the keyboard. The words seemed to spring forth only when Gene was running against the clock. (DL)
Gene was the numbers guy. He was very plugged in to the show’s ratings, and he enjoyed the business side of the media—things Roger couldn’t care less about. Gene was always interested in how much money other people were making. Not in a jealous way—he just liked keeping track of all that stuff. He was constantly crunching all sorts of numbers. That’s partly why he loved basketball and horse racing so much—they came with tons of odds and statistics. (RF)
He was a compulsive negotiator. He would drag out negotiations so that he could play with the deal longer and get a little bit more out of it. For example, when I worked with him at the CBS affiliate in Chicago, he demanded that a color television set be included as part of the final contract I did with him. I don’t know where he got the idea, but he kept saying, “I’ve got to have a color TV.” Don’t get me wrong—he wanted the color TV—but he also loved the gamesmanship of negotiating for it. (JB)
Gene set an unrelenting pace for them. If he and Roger were in New York City for a Letterman appearance, he’d try to get them on one of the network morning shows the next day. Roger believed in getting some rest. I don’t call that being a laggard—though Gene always thought he worked harder than Roger—I call that being realistic. But Gene worried this might result in Roger not wanting to continue with the show. One of the happiest days of Gene’s life was Roger’s wedding day: “He’s married! He’s bought a house! He’s got a mortgage! He’s got to buy things for his house! There’s no leaving now!”4 (DL)
Roger loves writing for the sake of writing. When the Daily News folded and out of curiosity I opened a bunch of paychecks to see how much money other people made, I found out that Roger made roughly 50 percent less than a critic the Daily News had hired six months prior, which I told Roger one night at a local bar. But it didn’t seem to bother him. (RK)
I never thought of Ebert as a person who particularly cared about television as television. He was a dabbler who cared about telling his story in virtually every medium but graffiti. At 2 o’clock he might start a screenplay, at 3 o’clock he might write his column, and at 4 o’clock he might work on a book. Then, at 5 o’clock, he might stroll onto a TV show. Siskel was more tightly focused. He had an inherent comprehension that each of these outlets is uniquely demanding, and therefore, he narrowed his work down to the two things he enjoyed most—the newspaper and television. (VS)
Gene got a backhanded compliment from a lot of people: “He’s a great reporter.” Part of that, though, was because of the comparison to Roger, who would walk into the features department, tell jokes, share some observations of the day and then write a beautiful review. The whole process would take less than an hour. You know the old A.J. Liebling line about being better than anyone faster and faster than anyone better? That was Roger. (AP)
If an opportunity to one-up the other guy presented itself, they would seize it like a dog to a bone. It was part of their personalities, especially Gene’s. He was a serious card player. As such, everything became a game with rules that he had tailored to better his chances of winning. For instance, one of his rules was that if I had left my appointment book open, it was OK for him to read what I had written in it. He would then puzzle out my notes in seconds. Say I had jotted down, “Roger in California” on a certain date. Gene would know Roger would be flying there for a Bruce Willis interview because he knew Bruce Willis had a movie coming out around that time. He also knew it meant Roger could scoop him. That, of course, couldn’t happen. As a result, Gene would move heaven and earth to make sure he got the interview before Roger. (DL)
During my years as a publicist at 20th-Century Fox, I would coordinate the Chicago publicity tours of the stars of new Fox movies. To keep things fair, I would rotate between Gene and Roger in terms of who got the star’s first local interview. Not that it mattered to Gene. He would call and try to work me anyway: “I know how you play this, Larry, but the Tribune has a larger circulation so you should give me a break on this one.” (LD)
Once, when he was sitting in our conference room with Roger, I told Gene, “So-and-so called about your interview with John Travolta.” He glared back at me like, “Never do that again!” From then on, phone messages were hidden in manila folders and delivered to Gene and Roger facedown. (RS)
That same conference room had this long table that Gene used to occasionally rest under. It was so long, in fact, that it covered him completely. One day, he went under the table to catch a few winks while I was typing his and Roger’s scripts for the teleprompter. Not long afterward, Roger came in the room, and without noticing Gene, he made a phone call to arrange an interview with Nastassja Kinski for a piece in the Sun-Times. When Roger left, Gene got up and hit the redial button. He proceeded to tell Nastassja Kinski’s representative that he was Roger’s assistant and that Roger had to cancel the interview. Then he looked at me and said, “Not a word!” (JD)
I remember working together with them in the same room and Gene calling his secretary to tell her to call Roger at a certain extension at PBS so he would have to leave the room, which gave Gene the opportunity to go through Roger’s appointment book.6 (LH)
Gene won the coin flips with enough frequency that we wondered if he had somehow rigged the coin. (NS)
They wanted to be seen as individuals. They didn’t want to be thought of as joined at the hip. That’s part of the reason that when they did have a disagreement, it was such a marked disagreement. They never wanted to give the impression that they shared an opinion. They each wanted to be known on their own merits and not as the Siskel and Ebert entity. (DV)
There were certainly many times when it was explosive. But that’s what made the magic. (ND)
Underlying all else was their great respect for each other as critics. (TF)
They had their own shorthand at screenings. A car would race around a corner, and they’d both say, “Apple cart!” Of course, the car would then hit an apple cart. Or suddenly there would be a scene where you would see the main character standing on a bridge staring out into space. Roger would say, “Here comes the semi-obligatory lyrical interlude!” They enjoyed amusing each other like that. (JD)
Around the office, Gene would greet Roger with, “Hello, old man!” And Roger would reply, “Hello, young man!”7 (SC)
They definitely had a fondness for one another. They just cloaked it in contentiousness.8 (NS)
I think they felt about each other the way they felt about the movies: Thrilled and delighted when the medium lived up to its promise; sad and disappointed when it fell short. But they were never willing to give up on either relationship. They loved the movies—and each other—too much for that. (SC)
They’d walk off the set angry at each other, but they always came back and got over it. Sometimes they even had laughing fits afterward. You know how it is—an argument grows so silly that you start to laugh about it.9 (NS)
It was like a peevish marriage. They could get incredibly upset with each other, but in the end, they had the type of empathy for one another that they never could have had with a true adversary. (DL)
They started each taping with a round of patty-cake—“Pease Porridge Hot.” (MK)
It went, “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold/ Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old/ Some like it hot, some like it cold/ Some like it in the pot, nine days old/ Daddy likes it hot, mommy likes it cold/ I like it in the pot, nine days old/ Hey!” They performed it with complicated hand/knee slaps and everything. (SC)
On “Hey!” they would throw their hands in the air. Every time, Roger would pretend to be amazed—like, “How do we always manage to end up in the exact same position?” (GH)
They also shared a secret handshake where they extended their finger over the pulse of the other guy. It meant, “I want to make sure you’re alive because I need you.” They did need each other—not to have a great writing career or to be great film critics. They needed each other to have a formidable foe. (ND)
* * *
1 An indelible presence during the Bulls’ back-to-back three-peats, Siskel planted himself courtside at the team’s home games with Nicholson-like devotion. According to Ebert, “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 car. He noticed small things about the sport and drew lessons from them (why Dennis Rodman missed his first free throw, why Toni Kukoc was more willing to take a bad shot than a good shot). He was to fans what Phil Jackson is to coaches.” (Return.)
2 The blowback from nebulous terms as described by Ebert in a 1989 Sun-Times piece: “The single worst argument Siskel and I ever had came after a coin flip, when we were unable to decide what we had been flipping for. We eventually had a two-out-of-three flip to settle the question of the original flip.” (Return.)
3 Another jab from the bald jokes division: “Did you know that a recent Harvard study indicated that thinking deeply about the movies will grow hair on your head?” (Return.)
4 The new Mrs. Ebert—Charlie “Chaz” Hammel-Smith, fortysomething attorney and divorced mother of a son and daughter—would give the 50-year-old Ebert the sanctuary of extended family and shake him from the doldrums of bachelorhood. “I will never be lonely again,” he exulted to those gathered at his and Chaz’s 1992 nuptials. She has, in fact, stood by his side ever since—or per wedding vows, in good times and bad. In the absolute worst of times, Ebert intimates credit her with helping him defy death. (Return.)
5 When the Russ Meyer flop arrived in theaters in 1970, Siskel rolled out a concrete slab for it to land on, helping guarantee a loud thud. “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls unfolds with all of the humor and excitement of a padded bra,” he lambasted the film in his zero-star Tribune review before taking direct aim at Ebert’s script—but of course. “Boredom aplenty is provided by a screenplay which for some reason has been turned over to a screenwriting neophyte.” (Return.)
6 Vexed by Siskel’s rampant subterfuge, Ebert submitted to rampant paranoia: “I became convinced that I was bad at keeping any secret, and that Siskel was so secretive, he sometimes kept things even from himself. The staff was sworn to secrecy: No one could mention anything to either one of us about the other’s plans. But then Siskel devised a form of blind-man’s chess. If he suspected I was going to New York on Friday for, let’s say, an exclusive interview with Greta Garbo, he would suggest that a screening be scheduled for Friday, looking blandly at me in a way designed to force me to say: ‘No, I can’t see it on Friday.’ And then he would raise a supercilious eyebrow and say, ‘Why not? Going to interview Garbo, I suppose.’ ” (Return.)
7 By birth order, at least, Ebert was the older brother in their sibling rivalry, entering the world three and a half years before Siskel. All told, their nurturing was as different as their natures. Ebert, an only child, grew up in central Illinois and went to the local state school, the University of Illinois, while Siskel, the youngest in a brood of six, spent his formative years in Glencoe before leaving for the Ivy League environs of Yale. (Return.)
8 “You know that old line ‘The more you know a person, the harder it is for you to dislike him?’ That’s absolutely true,” Siskel admitted as their partnership neared its 10th anniversary. “Roger and I disliked each other intensely. We perceived each other as a threat to our professional security. And we were thrown together a few years ago, but we couldn’t keep our distance. We got closer. At this point, the only person who knows him better is his mother.” (Return.)
SISKEL: WASPs don’t get enough shit. They have all the money! All of those guys are running Northern Trust; they have all the banks on LaSalle Street. They have all the goddamn insurance companies. They run the whole goddamn country.
EBERT: They don’t run the whole goddamn country, Gene! What about the international bankers? Not to mention the Vatican!
SISKEL: WASPs run the country, and all of us should band together and overthrow them. Come on, band together, people—let’s overthrow the country!
EBERT: Protestants—people who sort of want a religion. The Catholics and the Jews, we go back a few years together.
SISKEL: We’re real! We get down and dirty!
EBERT: We were here when Martin Luther was only a twinkle in his mother’s eye.
SISKEL: I’ll take a Baptist—somebody that has goddamn passion and blood coursing through their veins.
EBERT: Case closed! Goddamn Protestants! The biggest thing that happens for them on Sunday is a bake sale.
SISKEL: They have to decide what color tie to fucking buy—lime green or dark green?
EBERT: That’s right! He’s right! (Return.)
Josh Schollmeyer is a founding editor of the Chicagoan and an executive editor at Playboy.