He had only been with the Chicago Tribune for a few months when a young reporter named Gene Siskel successfully lobbied to fill in for the paper’s chief film critic, who was planning a leave of absence. What was supposed to be a temporary job turned into much more.
Eugene Kal Siskel was born in Chicago on Jan. 26, 1946. After the death of their parents in 1955, the Siskel children moved from their neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, to Glencoe, Ill., where they were raised by their maternal aunt, Mae Gray, and her husband, Joseph. Siskel graduated from Culver Military Academy, a boarding school in Culver, Ind., in 1963 and enrolled at Yale University, where he won a Coro Foundation Public Affairs Scholarship. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1967.
A year after graduating, Siskel, an Army reservist, was called to active duty. Taking courses in writing and editing at the U.S. Department of Defense and producing press material for the armed services inspired him to abandon plans to attend law school and pursue a journalism career. He returned to Chicago in 1969 and applied for a job at the Tribune. A letter of recommendation from Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey, a teacher and mentor at Yale, was included with his résumé. Upon receiving the paper’s film critic position, Siskel held it for the rest of his life. He branched out into television in 1974, offering film reviews on the evening news for the CBS Chicago affiliate WBBM. Per the paper’s request, Siskel was always introduced as the Tribune's film critic.
But it was another television program that would make Siskel as famous as many of the movie stars he wrote about. In 1975, he began working with Roger Ebert, film critic for the rival Chicago Sun-Times, on Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You, which aired monthly on the Chicago public television station WTTW. The half-hour program showcased the two critics discussing and debating the merits of the latest movies. It aired despite the reservations of both men. From the day the Tribune made Siskel its film critic, Ebert wrote in February 2009, they were what he called “professional enemies.” If alone together in an elevator at that time, they would rather have watched the numbers change than talk to each other. Over time, however, a deep if complicated friendship developed, one Ebert said they both knew was unbreakable.
Opening Soon became one of Chicago public television’s most popular shows and expanded from monthly to weekly. Traditional episodes were joined by special episodes on such topics as film genres and the careers of directors. In 1978, the program, now called Sneak Previews, became the first WTTW series to be shown nationally via the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). It quickly became the most-watched show on PBS, seen by millions every week, and the pair’s method of reviewing movies – “thumb up” or “thumb down” from each of them – became their trademark. Siskel and Ebert took their show, now titled At the Movies, into commercial syndication in 1982. While imitators failed, their show endured, changing its name to Siskel & Ebert at the Movies and finally Siskel & Ebert. Paul Dergarabedian, a movie industry market researcher, told the Boston Globe after Siskel’s death that people sought out the duo's opinion before deciding what to see.
In 1980, Siskel married Marlene Iglitzen, with whom he had three children. The family attended the Beth El Synagogue, where Siskel had been bar mitzvahed, in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park. Always proud of his faith, Siskel was master of ceremonies at a 1998 Chicago celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary sponsored by Jewish Federation as well as a founder of the organization Taam Yisrael, which funded trips to Israel for Jewish eighth-graders. He was also passionate about the Chicago Bulls, attending nearly every home game and even traveling to see them play on the road.
After being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, Siskel had surgery in May 1998. He returned to Siskel & Ebert that summer and continued attending screenings, filming the show and occupying his usual seat at Bulls games. Yet a busy schedule couldn’t mask his declining health. Ebert recalled that before Siskel's final shows he was unable to walk onto the set and take his seat without help. Siskel underwent surgery for a second time in February 1999. Two weeks later, on Feb. 20, he died at a hospital at Evanston, Ill., at the age of 53. More than 1,200 people attended his funeral, and members of the Bulls, some of whom were Siskel’s personal friends, paid tribute to him by wearing black sweatbands on the court. In 2000, the Film Center of the Art Institute of Chicago, which Siskel had supported as a donor and advisory board member, was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center.