Those of us who came of age in Chicago during the Siskel & Ebert era—starting for me with “Sneak Previews” on Channel 11 when I was in high school—always had a local, almost personal connection to them and the show even as it became a national phenomenon. They were our newspaper guys, or our local TV critics and we even saw them walking down the street from time to time. This made it hard for us to see them as the national celebrities they became, or to fully understand their influence on the film culture in their time.
Matt Singer was not so burdened, growing up on the East Coast and discovering the Midwestern duo in their national television prime. His new book, “Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever,” is a breezy but comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at the story of the show and its two powerful personalities. Singer is the editor and film critic for ScreenCrush.com, which covers mostly blockbuster movies and television, “although I try to cover smaller films whenever my time and budget allows,” he says, which Roger and Gene would applaud.
We discussed his new book via email.
Why this subject and why now?
It really came down to the fact that as a massive “Siskel & Ebert” fan since I was a kid, I wanted there to be a “Siskel & Ebert” book. I wanted to read it, so I wrote it. It was daunting taking it on, just because I am such a huge admirer of Gene and Roger and of the show. It was my wife who encouraged me to go for it anyway, if for no other reason that if I didn’t write it and someone else did, I would be furious.
Do you have any Chicago connections? Did you know either of them in real life?
I’m not from Chicago, although I did work for the terrific Chicago-based film website The Dissolve about a decade ago. I loved my time there, and know a fair number of writers from the Chicago film scene as a result. They’re lovely, brilliant folks.
From my perspective as a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, Siskel and Ebert seemed pretty famous. They were on their show every week, and I also saw them regularly on Letterman and Conan O’Brien as well. To me they were TV stars, albeit TV stars who didn’t look like most of the other stars on television. Which, for me and I suspect for a lot of people, only enhanced their appeal.
When I first started watching “Siskel & Ebert,” the computer in my house still had a black-and-green monitor. Because Gene and Roger introduced themselves as newspapermen who worked for the Tribune and Sun-Times every week, I understood those were also their jobs. But I could never read their newspapers, so to me, they were TV guys first. That was how I perceived them until I started buying Roger’s books and then reading his weekly reviews online after we upgraded to a color monitor and an internet connection a few years later.
I never got to meet Gene Siskel, but I did meet Roger several times, and I got to work with him a little as a contributing critic on the final iteration of “At the Movies,” when Roger and Chaz Ebert brought it back to WTTW and PBS, and the hosts were Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Roger gave me really encouraging feedback about my segments on the show. Exchanging emails with him during that period was pretty close to a literal dream come true.
I’m interested in how you pieced the history together since the only sources there from the beginning to the end were Gene and Roger, who are no longer with us.
I did speak with [producer] Thea Flaum on multiple occasions, and when I came to Chicago for research, I spoke with Chaz Ebert for several hours. Marlene Iglitzen, Gene Siskel’s widow, was nice enough to answer some questions as well. And I spoke to dozens of other people who worked on the show, or knew Gene and Roger. I basically wrote down the names of everyone in the end credits of the TV show through the years, then tracked those people down as best I could.
The other person I would single out as crucial to piecing together the history is Robert Feder, who covered Chicago media for decades as a columnist for the Sun-Times and other outlets. Robert knew both Gene and Roger personally, so speaking to him was valuable in and of itself, but in his capacity as Chicago media columnist he also maintained these voluminous files of clippings on Chicago media personalities, including Siskel and Ebert. Robert was gracious enough to let me look through his files, which were an invaluable source not only of obscure articles that have never been digitized and would have been almost impossible to find otherwise, but also of tons of rare ephemera from the show that he had saved—like the program from a benefit held in Siskel and Ebert’s honor that reprinted all sorts of interesting documents, like private letters they had received from filmmakers and so on.
What are some of the stories in the book you’re especially proud to get?
Honestly, the story I am most proud of in the book was one I first found in an interview that Roger Ebert conducted with the Television Academy Foundation in the mid-2000s. In it, he talked about how “Sneak Previews,” as it was then known, evolved into what he called a “One-Take Show.” Relatively early in the PBS days, Roger said he and Gene realized it was better for the show to be lively and honest than technically flawless. And the moment that crystalized that realization was this big argument on set during one taping that was going poorly with a lot of retakes and flubs trying to get their reads and their back-and-forth crosstalks perfectly right.
As Ebert told it, Gene Siskel and “Sneak Previews” producer Ray Solley got annoyed with one another after Solley demanded a retake because the camera had caught a flash of light off of Gene’s watch. Solley supposedly threw his clipboard down, stormed off the set, and basically quit on the spot. And the next week, Ebert said in this interview, Nancy De Los Santos became their new producer.
That was Roger’s version of the story. But I was able to talk to both Ray Solley and Nancy De Los Santos about this incident, and hear how they remembered it—which in some ways were quite different from how Roger told it. And that really felt like a great microcosm of the story of “Siskel & Ebert,” this show that celebrated opposing viewpoints, hosted by two men who were so smart but so often saw things so differently from one another. To me, the fact that no one could even agree on exactly what transpired at this all-important, show-defining moment was almost too perfect.
While no exposé, neither of them comes across as purely heroic, either, giving a certain warts-and-all character to the book. Was there anything in this regard you kept out of the book or anything that seemed especially radioactive that you did cover?
I put anything and everything I found that seemed notable or interesting into the book. I don’t think Gene or Roger would have wanted a sugar-coated version of the story, given what tenacious journalists they both were. (Go watch the old clips of Gene interviewing Paul McCartney or Madonna if you want to see what I mean.) There’s nothing radioactive in the book because no one told me anything radioactive. While they certainly weren’t purely heroic, as you put it, especially to each other, the people that worked with and for them spoke about their time on “Siskel & Ebert” with a ton of respect and fondness for them.
Talk about the state of film criticism today.
If you’re talking about the state of film criticism as a full-time job, there’s plenty of reason for pessimism. There’s fewer and fewer people who make a living as film critics than ever before. If you’re talking about the state of film criticism as a craft practiced by people who love movies, there is enormous reason for optimism, because there has surely been no time in history where more people were creating film criticism than are right now; not only in traditional venues like newspapers and magazines but also on websites, blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and sites like Letterboxd, which is a social network built around writing about movies.
When I was a kid, I had “Siskel & Ebert,” and I had a few publications that I loved that featured intelligent writing about movies, like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere. That was it! And if I wanted to write my own criticism, I could jot it in a notebook and show it to my family. Maybe I could get it printed in my school’s newspaper or post it on an AOL message board if I was really feeling ambitious. A young movie lover today has so many outlets to choose from, both to learn more about film and to express their own opinions. From that perspective, it’s a really exciting time for cinephiles.
I remember the show’s early days on WTTW and there was such a local TV lo-fi vibe to the whole thing. Even at the end, the production values increased but that original authenticity to their characters never seemed to waver. Is there anything like this today, and if so what? And if not, could there ever be again?
To me, this is one of the most fascinating questions about the show and its lingering influence. The formula was so simple—two guys sitting in a theater, talking about movies—and so relatively inexpensive to produce, that it seems like the show could have gone on forever. But it really didn’t. After Gene and Roger passed away and the Disney-syndicated “At the Movies” finally ended, so did movie reviews on TV, at least in a high-profile, nationally distributed way.
You do see “Siskel & Ebert”’s influence on cable TV, particularly on news and sports channels, which are now filled with shows where people sit around passionately arguing about various topics. There is plenty of talk about movies on podcasts and on YouTube these days, but not so much on television. I’ve always thought someone like Netflix should have their own version of “Siskel & Ebert” to help customers sort the wheat from the chaff of their library—but perhaps the show’s brand of brutal honesty isn’t what those sorts of companies really want.
I got the sense you watched a lot of old episodes… how are they archived at this point and are there any plans to put them into a complete archive at some point if not already?
I watched (or in a lot of cases rewatched) every episode that I could get my hands on, which amounted to hundreds upon hundreds of episodes from throughout the twenty-plus years of the show across PBS, Tribune and Disney. There is no official archive online, and hasn’t been since Disney shut down the site connected to their version of the syndicated show in the late 2000s. What exists online right now on YouTube or on sites like SiskelEbert.org is, at least to my knowledge, what has been preserved by passionate fans. I would love it if there was an official and one-hundred-percent comprehensive online archive for the show. No one would visit that site more than me.
What do you think the lasting legacy of Siskel & Ebert will be?
Next February marks twenty-five years since Gene Siskel’s death and if you asked people today to name a film critic, my guess is a lot of them—even a lot of younger ones—would name him or Roger Ebert first. They championed so many actors and directors whose careers would not have been the same without them, and they inspired so many young people to pursue filmmaking and film criticism. And RogerEbert.com is not only a valuable archive of Roger’s work, it still publishes new criticism every week from a staff of excellent writers. I was just looking at a movie poster earlier today and the first pull-quote at the top of it was from a writer at RogerEbert.com. Clearly that name still carries an enormous amount of respect in the film world.
For all those reasons, I don’t see Siskel or Ebert being forgotten any time soon. And if my book can play some small role in reminding people why they loved the show, or inspires them to watch some old reviews or the movies Gene and Roger recommended, then I did my job.
“Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever”
By Matt Singer
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 352 pages