As movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had power, and in Chicago, that made them more than local celebrities. It made them competitors. Before they went on TV together, the two men had barely spoken to each other, even when they were at the same screening. They lived in the same city, but operated in different worlds.
Gene Siskel was born in Chicago in 1946. Both of his parents died before he was 10 years old, so he was raised by an aunt and uncle, as part of a large extended family. When the weekend rolled around, Siskel headed straight to his local movie theater. He’d sometimes see the same film for weeks or even months in a row.
Siskel later enrolled at Yale University, where he studied philosophy. He and his friends would stay up late and discuss whatever film they’d just seen, trying to figure out what it all meant. Those conversations stuck with him. Years later, whenever he’d describe writing about movies, he’d say it was like covering “the national dream beat.”
After graduating from college, Siskel spent some time in the Army Reserve before landing a job in the local news section of the Chicago Tribune. When the paper’s film critic position opened up, he sent a memo to the editors, arguing why he should take it over. He didn’t have a lot of film criticism experience, but he got the job. He was 23 years old.
Gene’s professional movie review career began in late 1969, not long after he joined the Tribune. Talk about timing. The big studios were losing steam, and movie execs were desperate to connect with young audiences. Within a few years, Hollywood was taken over by a new generation of cocky upstarts who kind of did whatever they wanted—filmmakers like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Melvin Van Peebles, Dennis Hopper.
Starting in the late ’60s, movies became more personal, more daring, more urgent than they’d felt for years. And Siskel was covering them for one of the biggest papers in the country. He wrote raves of future classics like The French Connection and Z. He interviewed Alfred Hitchcock over lunch and spent a boozy lost weekend in Palm Springs with Cary Grant—an adventure that could probably be a podcast on its own.
As a critic, Siskel made some calls that were unorthodox at the time and remain strange decades later. He described Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as laughable but not very memorable. And he thought Chinatown was “tedious from beginning to just before the end.” As he later explained, he didn’t write his reviews wondering what other critics thought about the movie—or what they’d think about him.
As for Roger Ebert, he effectively began his writing career while he was still a kid. Roger grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a small city outside Chicago, where he published a neighborhood newsletter, along with sci-fi stories. He’d later become editor of his grade-school paper, his high-school paper, and his college newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He covered sports. Politics. World affairs. All while still in his 20s.
Ebert spent long weekends at his local theater, watching Westerns, cartoons, Marx brothers comedies, and newsreels. But when he got to college, he was exposed to movies that wound up having a deeper impact. Movies like Akira Kurosawa’s drama Ikiru, about a dying man searching for meaning in his life. Or François Truffaut’s coming-of-age story The 400 Blows.
In 1966, Roger got a feature-writing gig at the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sunday magazine. He went on to review low-budget movies and visit the occasional film set. Roger actually wasn’t planning on covering movies full time. But when the paper’s film critic retired, Roger was offered the job. He was 24 years old.
Roger’s new position gave him a lot of freedom. He covered low-budget skin flicks and the French new-wave movement. He once got stranded in a Pennsylvania snowstorm while writing about Robert Mitchum. And he attended the 1968 Los Angeles premiere of a movie that would stick with him for the rest of his life: Stanley Kubrick’s existential sci-fi adventure 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Roger didn’t really understand 2001. But he was transfixed. Movies had always been Roger’s way of connecting with the rest of the world. But 2001 connected him with the rest of the universe.
As a kid in the Midwest, he’d written his own outer-space stories. Now he was watching a film that opened up the possibilities of what those far-off galaxies might really be like. At the movie’s premiere, he felt chills run down his spine when he realized that HAL 9000—the movie’s eerily human-like supercomputer—hailed from Roger’s home state of Illinois. It must have felt as though 2001 were made just for him.
Gene also loved 2001. He once asked Stanley Kubrick if he could buy the giant monolith prop from the movie. But the film that became Gene’s lifelong pursuit was a swaggering late-’70s drama about a troubled teen who spends his nights at a dreamlike Brooklyn club called … the 2001 Odyssey. If 2001 took Roger into an imaginary future, Saturday Night Fever transported Gene to an imaginary past. “It’s the childhood that I never had, the adolescence that I never had,” Siskel told John Travolta.
The films of the late ’60s and ’70s—Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider—arrived during Gene and Roger’s formative movie-going years. They were young men trying to figure out the world, and the movies of that era offered some clues. They were stories about love, sex, war, death, and everything in between. And their excitement over what they were seeing came across in their reviews—at least the ones they wrote in the newspaper. TV, it turned out, would provide a different set of challenges for Gene and Roger.