From the archives: When I interviewed Siskel & Ebert
In 1995, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were celebrating their 20th year of television. When it came time for them to give one interview to a print outlet, it was Gene that suggested they talk to me–even though I worked for Roger’s paper, the Sun-Times. I was deeply flattered. Here’s a look back at that interview, which took place more than a dozen years ago.
October 26, 1995, Thursday, FINAL EDITION
Critics agreed to disagree 20 years ago
BYLINE: RICHARD ROEPER; CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert are America’s best-known TV squabblers.
By taking serious film criticism and making it palatable to a mass audience, they became international celebrities, as recognizable as most of the movie stars whose films they review.
This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Siskel & Ebert TV partnership, which began as a monthly show, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, on WTTW in Chicago.
Now seen all over the country, Siskel & Ebert has spawned a gaggle of imitation shows and an endless number of parodies.
It’s also changed the way we watch and think about movies. Everyone from the clerk at Blockbuster to the guy in line at the multiplex is now a critic. And is there a moviegoer who hasn’t used the thumbs up-thumbs down technique of signaling an instant movie review?
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper met with Siskel & Ebert down the hall from the screening room where, shrouded in darkness, they see the latest flicks.
RICHARD ROEPER: Had you guys met before you teamed up on Channel 11?
GENE SISKEL: I think I saw Roger once at O’Rourke’s (a Chicago tavern). An article recently said we also had conversations at Riccardo’s (another Chicago hangout), but that was totally untrue.
ROGER EBERT: No, we never had any conversations at Riccardo’s. Most of the screenings in those days were on the seventh floor of the Chicago Theater.
We basically spent a lot time watching the numbers change on the elevator. We were contacted by Channel 11 primarily because we were the opposing critics for the two Chicago morning dailies.
And I think both of us were eager to do the job because we couldn’t conceive of letting the other guy do it without us.
SISKEL: Chicago was an intense newspaper town — four newspapers, with all four going after everybody. It was our mission to beat the other guy, in every facet.
EBERT: It was bloodthirsty.
ROEPER: And the format hasn’t much changed?
SISKEL: From the beginning, we never got together and talked about the show. We don’t have big planning sessions.
EBERT: We never discuss a movie before the show and we don’t frequently discuss any of them afterward.
ROEPER: Looking back, has there ever been a case where either one has changed the other’s opinion of a film?
EBERT: Both of us have had changes of opinion but it may not be the other person who has changed our mind. It’s the film that has changed our mind.
SISKEL: I got smarter about Apocalpyse Now. He’s getting smarter about A Clockwork Orange.
EBERT: And you’re beginning to come up a little bit about Thelma and Louise and Silence of the Lambs.
SISKEL: No, not Thelma and Louise.
EBERT: Silence of the Lambs?
SISKEL: No, I saw it again and I still couldn’t buy it from the beginning. I appreciate Jodie Foster’s work but I think the run around the house at the end … I’m sorry, that is mad-slasher with a better director and a better protagonist.
EBERT: But Psycho was mad-slasher with a better director.
SISKEL: Psycho, to me, has a much bigger mystery to it than Silence. I would like similarly to put Roger under the thumb for a two-star review of A Clockwork Orange.
EBERT: Gene has been dining out on my review of A Clockwork Orange for at least 20 years. It gives him so much pleasure I don’t see why I should change my mind — which would just give him more pleasure.
ROEPER: So you’d rather deny Gene pleasure than offer a revised review?
SISKEL: It sounded like he just said that: Check the tape.
EBERT: It does, it does sound as if I said that and, you know, it’s interesting. I hope to see Clockwork Orange again, and I will say whatever I think about it. I think it’s interesting that Kubrick has never allowed the movie to be shown in England. I don’t think he likes it very much either.
ROEPER: Your names and faces are often used as punchlines and characters in movies and other media.
EBERT: Just last week we were in the comics — both Ziggy and Cathy. Big deal.
SISKEL: Mad magazine is a big deal.
ROEPER: What do they call you? They usually make fun of the names.
EBERT: Frequently they just call us Siskel & Ebert.
SISKEL: No no, I think it’s “Sissy and Ebore.”
ROEPER: Have you ever been asked to appear in movies?
EBERT: Yes, and we’ve always turned it down. We don’t feel it’s proper, as long as we’re film critics. We have a couple of rules. We don’t do commercials. We’ve been offered the opportunity to be in commercials for some of the best-known brand names around. We also won’t do bit parts in movies.
ROEPER: You guys need each other. Are you always going to be doing the show?
EBERT: I have a feeling we’ll be doing this show until no one wants us to, and at that point we’ll stop.
SISKEL: My fantasy is that in another 40 years we’ll be in wheelchairs and we’ll have attendant nurses and we’ll do the show.
EBERT: Every time I see pictures of Anna Nicole Smith with her late husband — I think, that’s Gene and me doing the show in 40 years.
SISKEL: You’re going to have the implants?
EBERT: Um, yes, no, no, no.
SISKEL: You don’t need ‘em.
EBERT: I’m going to have the nurse — never mind.
ROEPER: If you guys didn’t have this mutually beneficial, adversarial relationship, would you hang around as friends?
EBERT: I don’t think we’re naturally compatible.
SISKEL: Here’s something we have never talked about: The ways in which we’re similar. One is, we have a love of newspapers. Reading them, writing for them.
EBERT: Another thing we have in common, we both have almost infallible detectors for when somebody is telling us a line or a fudge or an evasion, and it sets off kind of a killer instinct in us.
SISKEL: We’re like an old married couple in the sense that we finish each other’s sentences. We know what we’re talking about. We know the other person gets exactly what we mean and every nuance. For all the bickering on the show, that comes through. On the other hand, Roger isn’t, for example, a sports fan.
EBERT: Gene is a Bulls groupie. I once asked if he’d rather have dinner with Michael Jordan or Jimmy Stewart and he thought a long, long time and finally said, “Michael Jordan.”
ROEPER: What’s the biggest disagreement you’ve ever had, on- or off-camera?
EBERT: We had a fight once over a coin toss. Gene redefined what we were tossing for. Here’s the thing. If it’s heads or tails and you call heads, what have you won? The right to choose, or the right to do what you said was going to happen?
You have choices A and B. So it’s heads A, tails B. Gene won the toss with heads but he wanted B so he said, “I get to choose.” But then he wins whether he wins or loses.
SISKEL: It’s a nice fantasy he’s created here. What caused the problem was that we hadn’t clearly defined what the rules would be.
EBERT: But if that was true, why wouldn’t Gene just agree to flip the coin again?
(For the next seven minutes, the coin-toss argument gets more convoluted and heated. Nothing is resolved.)