Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, back in the early ’80s I remember watching Sneak Previews on the Chicago public television station, WTTW, Channel 11. This was the very first incarnation of the movie review show that would eventually launch its hosts, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, into pop-culture superstardom. In my opinion, they are the greatest American film critics–and I don’t just say that because they’re Chicago guys, though it was cool to know they were based here.
I still have fond memories of those early Sneak Previews shows. In fact, I can remember how excited I was to see Siskel and Ebert’s reviews of what would become some of my favorite childhood movies–Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans.
Sneak Previews eventually went into commercial syndication as At the Movies and finally Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. I loved those two guys together. Siskel was a Yale graduate and didn’t stomach foolishness that easily; Ebert was often the one with more populist tastes. But they both had very high standards. I loved the way they’d argue about movies. Sometimes it looked like the taller Siskel wanted to strangle his rotund partner, but then in the very next segment they would fall all over each other in agreement. I loved their passion for the movies and celebration of good art. I loved their “two thumbs up” (or “two thumbs down,” when a movie deserved it). But mostly, I loved watching their friendship evolve. Even as they bickered and mixed it up, you could tell these two guys genuinely cared for each other.
In a way, their relationship reminds me of what real reconciliation is about. The goal isn’t to always agree or pretend to get along in a superficial way. It’s about deep, passionate, and honest relationship. One where we might lay into each other sometimes, but by the end of the episode it’s clear that we love each other and that we’ll be back in the same aisle seats next week.
Well, today is the tenth anniversary of Gene Siskel’s untimely death, and his surviving partner Roger Ebert (who has been facing serious health challenges of his own lately) has written one of the most poignant, loving, and profound tributes to a friend that I’ve ever read. He opens with this:
Gene Siskel and I were like tuning forks. Strike one, and the other would pick up the same frequency. When we were in a group together, we were always intensely aware of one another. Sometimes this took the form of camaraderie, sometimes shared opinions, sometimes hostility. But 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 almost always thought the same things were funny. That may be the best sign of intellectual communion.
Gene died ten years ago on February 20, 1999. He is in my mind almost every day. I don’t want to rehearse the old stories about how we had a love/hate relationship, and how we dealt with television, and how we were both so scared the first time we went on Johnny Carson that, backstage, we couldn’t think of the name of a single movie, although that story is absolutely true. Those stories have been told. I want to write about our friendship.
From there, Ebert shares an eloquent flood of memories, both funny and sad. Even if you weren’t fans of this pair, you might want to have some tissue handy. I encourage you to read the piece and think about the depth of the friendships in your own life. And as you do, please say a prayer for Mr. Ebert.