Things were going pretty well between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert by the mid-’90s. There was still tension there, of course—that would never go away. But Gene and Roger’s lives would undergo major changes throughout the decade. Their partnership would become closer than ever before. And it would end sooner than anyone could have imagined.
Gene and Roger’s sometimes awkward union becoming less contentious as the ’90s went on was likely due to some big events in their off-screen lives.
“The most dramatic change came about after Roger’s marriage to Chaz in 1992,” Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow said. “Gene was, above all, a husband and a father. So family was his joy, his anchor. And when Roger married Chaz, he experienced the same thing with her, and her children and her grandchildren. And it just became a strong bond between the two of them. I mean, it isn’t to say that they weren’t competitive, but the edges started to soften.”
According to Siskel & Ebert producer and director Jim Murphy, who worked on the show in the late ’80s and early ’90s, time on the road doing late-night shows helped smooth over Gene and Roger’s relationship as well.
“They were doing stuff outside of work that required the two of them to work together,” Murphy said. “They started to realize, I think, over time that they were each great critics in their own right, and great journalists and well known and big stars. But they had a thing together that made them much more valuable.”
As the decade went on, the personal differences between Gene and Roger just became less incendiary. Maybe it was middle-aged maturity. Or a mutual respect. Or the simple fact that they didn’t have the time to duke it out like they once did. Whatever the reasons, the rivalry that had once fueled Gene and Roger’s career now seemed like old news. Even talk-show hosts had grown tired of bringing it up.
But while their relationship was in a great place, one of their healths was about to take a turn for the worse.
In May 1998, Gene and Roger returned to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which was shooting a week’s worth of episodes from Chicago. In their limo on the way to the set, Gene complained of a severe headache. He wasn’t up for chatting with Leno, and let Roger do most of the talking that night. Afterward, he went to a Bulls playoff game.
Less than two weeks later, Roger was in France, covering the Cannes Film Festival. He knew Gene had gone to a hospital to undergo some tests. But Roger didn’t know much else. He’d just left a screening with Carrie Rickey, another film critic, when Chaz pulled him aside.
Afterward, the three of them headed to Roger’s next screening.
“Chaz is clutching one of Roger’s hands, and I just clutched the other one,” Rickey said. “And I said, ‘This is what I know. I think something must be wrong with Gene. I don’t know about it.’ And he said, ‘Gene has perhaps an inoperable problem. You don’t know anything about this, and you don’t repeat anything about this.’
“He was professional, and he held it together, but I could tell: He was this teddy bear with all the stuffing pulled out.”
Word soon got out in the press that Gene had undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor. The details of Gene’s illness were kept private. He didn’t release a statement to the press, and he didn’t address the show’s staff. What no one knew, aside from a few family members, was that Gene had terminal brain cancer. He didn’t have long to live.