Thursday, June 25, 2009
by Erik J. Martin
It's hard to believe that it's been a decade now since film critic Gene Siskel passed away. And it's nearly as hard to believe that it's been 34 years since Sneak Previews, a quirky half‑hour TV program pairing two rival Chicago newspaper film critics--Siskel, with the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, with the Chicago Sun-Times--aired locally on WTTW. Few viewers took notice at first, but the way we would look at movies was from that point forever changed.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert soon became the dynamic duo of movie reviewers--the world's most easily recognizable and respected film critics. Though their series would change titles, time slots and stations countless times since its inception, their gold mine film review format would stay the same: Each week, the two would screen clips from a handful of current movies, and then take turns critiquing them. In the series’ early years, each show would close with the “ruff, ruff” bark of a small dog as the preface to the pair’s “dog of the week” picks.
Occasionally, Ebert & Siskel would present a unique theme program such as the year's best and worst movies, the annual Oscar picks installment, and even the pair's favorite movies of all time program (Siskel has said his is 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ebert once picked Casablanca).
By 1982, Sneak Previews had become the highest-rated regular series in PBS history. Not so coincidentally, the pair abandoned the show for a more lucrative syndication deal that produced the new half-hour series At the Movies.
Succeeding Siskel & Ebert on Sneak Previews was Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler, two lesser‑known film critics. Michael Medved replaced Gabler in 1985, and two years later the series jumped to the Lifetime cable network for a single season before returning to the PBS airwaves in the fall of ’88. At the Movies, meanwhile, lasted four years until Roger and Gene left for their third and final foray into televised film reviewing, Siskel & Ebert, which debuted in 1986. (Replacing them on At the Movies was Rex Reed and Bill Harris, the latter who was eventually supplanted by Dixie Whatley).
By 1997, Siskel & Ebert's program was appearing on some 200 stations across the country and the show was ranked as the top‑rated syndicated weekly half‑hour program in the United States.
Sometimes controversial, never compromising and always entertaining, the ever-bickering Siskel & Ebert were often more fun to watch than the movie clips they show. When they weren't taking jabs at thumbs-down movies, the twosome poked fun at each other–Gene at Roger for his weight, and Roger at Gene for his receding hairline.
But seriously, folks, the duo can be credited with increasing audience awareness of critically acclaimed, artistic and foreign films, and creating higher visibility for movie reviewers and film columnists everywhere. Over the years, Siskel & Ebert catch phrases have even become part of the American vernacular, with trademarks like "two thumbs up," "save us the aisle seat," and “until next time, we’ll see you at the movies.”
After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert continued the show with a variety of guest critics in Gene's seat. By 2000, he had named fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper as the permanent replacement and eventually retitled the program Ebert & Roeper. Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and often was absent from the show in the years that followed. Roeper and Ebert ended their relationship with the program in 2008. But what a run it was!