When Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first started working together, they worried they’d end up embarrassing themselves on TV. Instead, they became cult icons—and then, ultimately, full-on superstars.
“If you did a huge survey of the country, there aren’t that many people, probably, who give a darn about movie criticism as it goes on,” Tom Shales, a Pulitzer-winning TV critic for The Washington Post said. “But they got people to care, and tricked them into watching, sort of, by turning it into a kind of a soap opera: The adventures of Roger and Gene.”
But it took a lot of practice to make the “soap opera” that was Sneak Previews work. Before each taping, the critics spent the week taking in as many films as possible. Once the screenings were done, everyone would gather at the fake movie-balcony for the show’s Thursday taping.
The Sneak Previews format didn’t change much in those first few years. What did change was Siskel and Ebert themselves. After a few stiff early appearances, the critics began to loosen up: Their conversations felt easy and natural—even when they were arguing. And they got a kick out of celebrating the kinds of films that critics weren’t supposed to take seriously.
Keep in mind, this was on PBS—which back then wasn’t known for monster-movie reviews. It was “prestige TV” before that even became a thing. PBS was where you watched Masterpiece Theatre and the Kennedy Center Honors. But even though Siskel and Ebert were on a respected national network, they never came off as too lofty. And much like superstar-chef Julia Child, another public-TV celebrity, Siskel and Ebert had a talent for making something that seemed intimidating feel accessible. As film critic Carrie Rickey points out, that relatability was a big part of Gene and Roger’s early success.
“Here are these Midwest guys,” Rickey said, “and the thing about being in the Midwest is that you could be an intellectual, but you didn’t flaunt it. They had this very refined palate, but they talked about the things they loved like Joe Six-pack. ... They could make sophisticated arguments in that language.”
Quentin Tarantino, who came of age in the ’70s, when local newscasts and TV shows had their own on-air movie critics, knew that the competitors couldn’t connect with viewers the way Gene and Roger did. “Siskel and Ebert put all those guys out of business,” Tarantino said. “Once everybody knew who they were, then they were the movie critics for the people. And everyone was kind of interested, watched the show to see what they said. And then you saw thumbs-up or thumbs-down. You knew, without knowing the content of the review, you know what they thought about it.”
On Sneak Previews, Gene and Roger tackled issues you rarely heard being discussed on television back then. Entire episodes were devoted to how Hollywood treated Black characters, and to how horror movies treated women. Nowadays, these kinds of in-depth movie conversations can be found anywhere, 24 hours a day: on podcasts, subreddits, and Twitter threads. Or even just in a text chain between you and a friend. The modern film discourse is everywhere you read, everywhere you look, everywhere you listen.
But in the Sneak Previews era, for millions of people, Siskel and Ebert were the discourse. Within two years of its debut, the show was being carried on nearly 300 PBS stations around the country. That meant Siskel and Ebert were reaching smaller cities and towns too.
By the spring of 1982, Sneak Previews was drawing millions of viewers each week. Enough to make it the most popular half-hour show in public-TV history. And Gene and Roger had finally landed in powerful markets like Los Angeles and New York—hugely influential cities that had once shut the show out.
With Sneak Previews taking off across the country, Gene and Roger were suddenly in demand. It wasn’t just the late-night shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman that were after them. At one point, they were even asked to play themselves in the ’80s comedy Strange Brew—an offer they declined.
That newfound fame had an unforeseen side effect as well: It made the competition between the two critics all the more intense.
Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.