Movie critic Gene Siskel dies while on leave from TV show; His program with Ebert broadened influence of non-Hollywood opinions


Gene Siskel, the thinner, more cerebral half of the popular Siskel & Ebert team of dueling movie reviewers, died yesterday at a hospital near his home in Chicago, two weeks after leaving the long-running syndicated television program for further recuperation from brain surgery in May.

Mr. Siskel, age 53, and and his partner, Roger Ebert, had made their signature thumbs up -- or thumbs down -- a powerful influence over a movie's success or failure.

Until Mr. Siskel, the movie reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, and Mr. Ebert, the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, were paired for a local public television program, "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You," in 1969, film critics had little sway over a movie's fate.

That was because most reviewers had largely local followings and because huge Hollywood advertising and promotion campaigns could override even negative national reviews.

Household names

But the crackling on-air chemistry between Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert, their sometimes spirited, even caustic, disagreements and their opinions that consistently reflected broad public tastes, quickly made them such powerful persuaders that movie ads routinely included their thumbs-up endorsements.

It was a reflection of their popular appeal that when their program went into national syndication in 1982, as "At the Movies," the title was soon changed to "At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert," and then to "Siskel & Ebert."

Mr. Siskel, a native of Chicago who was brought up by an aunt and uncle in a rollicking household that included two siblings and three cousins, did not grow up dreaming of becoming a movie critic.

A boost from Hersey

Intending to be a trial lawyer, he majored in philosophy at Yale, but two years after his graduation in 1967, a letter of recommendation from a Yale mentor and teacher, the author John Hersey, secured a job for him at the Tribune.

Seven months after starting as a neighborhood reporter, he was made a film critic.

Even after he and Mr. Ebert became television stars, they continued their newspaper reviews and accepted solo sideline work. Mr. Siskel worked as a reviewer for "CBS This Morning," and for WBBM-TV in Chicago.

If viewers sometimes had trouble remembering which of the two men was which, no one would have thought they came from the same mold.

Even when they agreed that a movie was good or bad, they were sure to disagree on why, and their arguments were seen as so entertaining that the two men became favorite guests on late-night television talk shows, generally taking turns sitting next to the host.

Mr. Siskel, who had returned to work shortly after his surgery to remove a brain tumor last year, took wry note of their rivalry when he announced his leave this month.

"I'm in a hurry to get well," he said, "because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I."

His survivors include his wife, Marlene, and two daughters.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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