Along with his colleague Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel is arguably the one other person who can be credited with changing the face of journalistic film criticism.
When he took over as film critic of The Chicago Tribune he maintained a level of sincerity and down-to-earth wholesomeness that translated well to his readers. He also influenced the way movies
were made and viewed by bringing film criticism to the mainstream. Thin and balding, witty and wry, movie fans around the world were drawn to Siskel because throughout his career, he remained
journalism's definitive "everyman."
He was born Eugene Kal Siskel on Jan. 26, 1946 in Chicago, Ill. to parents Nathan and Ida Kalis Siskel. By the time Gene was nine years old both parents had passed away and he moved to the nearby town of Glencoe, where he was raised by his uncle and aunt, Joseph and Mae Gray.
Siskel developed an intense passion for cinema at an early age. At a time when most American children were slaves to their television sets, Siskel preferred walking several blocks to the historic Nortown Theater, his favorite place to catch a show. Like a child stepping into a fantasy world, he would lose himself in the Nortown's spacious Mediterranean interior and find himself gazing into the effervescent glow of the theater's unique lighting system. As Siskel himself once said, he was "swept away" by the experience.
As a teen, Siskel attended the Culver Military Academy in northern Indiana and went on to graduate from Yale University in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. After graduating from Yale, Siskel won a public affairs scholarship and found work on a California political campaign. He then joined the Army Reserves and was assigned to the United States Department of Defense Information School, where after writing and editing media releases, he developed his love for journalism.
Siskel returned to Chicago at the age of 22, and on Jan. 20, 1969 was hired by the Chicago Tribune. His first job with the paper was as a neighborhood news reporter and staff
writer for the Sunday department, a position usually reserved for rookie reporters. Almost immediately after Siskel's hiring, Tribune film critic Cliff Terry was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at
Harvard University and took a one year sabbatical from the paper. Editors had every intention of filling Terry's position with about a half-dozen reporters who would write reviews on a rotating
basis, but Siskel had other plans. Despite the fact that he had only been a reporter for a few months, he sensed an immediate opportunity to move through the ranks of the Tribune's
Harking back to an age of journalism that has long since passed, Siskel wrote a memo to the Sunday editor explaining why the paper needed a single voice to review movies, and why that person should be him. The following day, Siskel was called into his editor's office for an impromptu interview, and a short time later was offered the job of Tribune film critic. Siskel accepted and would work for the paper for 30 years.
Having had a lifelong fascination and love for all-things cinematic certainly aided in Siskel's transition from neighborhood news reporter to head film critic. He quickly earned a reputation around Chicago as one of the city's finest writers, and was eventually hired to provide movie reviews and features for Chicago's WBBM-TV.
It goes without saying that Siskel would have found success with or without the help of television. Rather than go on a tangent and lambaste or praise a film without providing any substance to the reader, his columns provided insight, depth and often humor. As far as film criticism goes, his columns were extremely a-typical. They were detailed and full of passion, and they provided arguments either for or against a film. But an opportunity would present itself in 1975 that would springboard his career to a completely new level of success. Not long after taking the job with WBBM, Siskel was asked to work alongside Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert and co-host the movie review program "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You."
aking two overtly opinionated film critics (who happened to write for rival newspapers and often worked hard to out-scoop the other) and asking them to share airtime was to
some, entirely ill-advised. Audiences and critics, however, responded well to the duo's natural rapport and agreed that their sibling-like rivalry made for good television.
"Opening Soon" eventually evolved into "Sneak Previews" and reached a national audience when it was syndicated by PBS in 1978. By the fourth season, the show became a once-a-week feature on approximately 190 outlets and achieved status as the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting.
Together, Siskel and Ebert became the nation's two most prominent film critics, and they did so in part by championing lesser-known independent and foreign language films. Films such as "My Dinner With Andre" and "Hoop Dreams," which could have easily been overlooked by the media and general public, were exposed to mainstream America courtesy of the praise they received from both Siskel and Ebert. Sans the typical Hollywood ties that accompany many film critics, the pair continued to work out of the Midwest and remained steadfast in their belief that a film's budget should have little if nothing to do with its overall value and box office success.
Siskel and Ebert left PBS in 1981 and signed with Tribune Entertainment, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune. During contract renewal time, the film critics made the decision to part ways with Tribune Entertainment and signed a new contract with Disney’s Buena Vista Television. There, they produced the show “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.” As a result, Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires made the controversial and unpopular move of releasing Siskel from his duties as head film critic.
Despite the onslaught of media attention that was created by his very public feud with editors at the Tribune, Siskel continued as co-host of the world's most popular movie
review program. At the height of the shows popularity it was estimated that "Siskel and Ebert" reached a potential 95 percent of all households in the country. In the end, Siskel and Ebert shared
the spotlight for more than 23 seasons, received six national Emmy Award nominations and won an Iris Award from the National Association of Television Programming Executives - the same
organization that would later initiate Siskel into their Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Siskel's success on television certainly paved the way for more opportunities as a journalist, and he was granted interviews with high profile celebrities in the world of Hollywood, sports and politics. Fittingly, Siskel and Squires agreed to terms that would allow him to re-join the Tribune as a syndicated movie columnist and author of the weekly "Flick Picks" and the popular "Beat Siskel" contest. In 1990, Siskel was appointed as the film critic for "CBS This Morning" and he continued to write for a number of publications including Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and HOOP Magazine.
Throughout his career - which required frequent travel to film sets, film festivals and awards ceremonies around the world - Siskel embraced his hometown of Chicago and remained loyal to his Windy City roots. In 1980 he married Marlene Iglitzen, former producer of WBBM-TV's 5 p.m. newscast, a program on which Siskel appeared regularly as a movie reviewer. The couple had three children - Kate, Callie, and Will - and made their home in Chicago's Gold Coast and north side community of Lincoln Park.
Gene Siskel's legacy as a film critic goes above and beyond his trademark "thumbs up - thumbs down" film verdicts. He died on Feb. 20, 1999, and he will forever be remembered as a world class journalist who worked diligently to preserve the integrity and future of filmmaking, and as the man who often ended his interviews by asking his subjects, "What do you know for sure?" For his efforts, Siskel was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1997, and following his death, the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which Siskel championed since its inception in 1972, officially changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center.