Roger Ebert: A Life in the Movies

FROM DECEMBER 2005: He was an eager young man fresh from Urbana when he started reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times more than three decades ago. His intervening years have featured unimagined success, abiding friendships, too much booze (for a time), the death of a colleague, bouts with cancer, and (rather late) lasting love. His passion for film has made Ebert a bigger star than many of the people he writes about.

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The Odd Couple

The idea for the show that would make Ebert and Siskel rich and famous came from the late Eliot Wald, at the time a producer at public television’s WTTW. But another producer there, Thea Flaum, made the program work. She insisted on pairing the fiercely competitive critics at the two morning papers, even though they could not stand each other. Ebert later told the Tribune’s Rick Kogan, “I think each of us initially said yes because we didn’t want the other guy to do it first.” Siskel was already reviewing movies for WBBM-TV, and Ebert had done a 20-part introduction to the films of Ingmar Bergman for WTTW and had just won the Pulitzer.

Opening Soon at a Theater Near You first aired in September 1975. The title changed as the pair moved from WTTW to PBS to Tribune Entertainment to Buena Vista Television, a division of Disney, but the idea remained the same: two newspaper critics, one fat, one bald, dressed in casual clothes, talking, often arguing, about the movies. There were no celebrity interviews, no gossip, no visits to movie sets. “The great thing about these two guys was, it wasn’t an act,” says Harvey Weinstein, who with his brother headed Miramax, also owned by Disney. “When they disagreed, they sure did disagree, and they were both incredibly opinionated and strong-willed. But the thing they both had in common was, they were champions of movies.”

At the beginning, that was about all they had in common. Ebert was convivial; Siskel, private. Siskel loved sports; Ebert, says one friend, could not name three professional athletes unless they had appeared in movies. Ebert was an intellectual about movies; Siskel, a brilliant reporter, especially in analyzing the economics of the industry. Ebert was a lightning-fast writer who, says Larry Dieckhaus, one of Flaum’s many successors, “would go back and maybe make a comma change; Gene would sit there and sweat blood.” Ebert was competitive, but mildly so compared with Siskel, who, says Marshall Rosenthal, Siskel’s producer at WBBM-TV, “was probably the most competitive guy I ever knew.” Ebert traveled to film festivals and watched movies from morning until night. “Movies were Roger’s lifeblood,” says Gary Dretzka, a former editor at the Tribune. Siskel soon had a wife and children and preferred to stay home with them. Siskel was the more skillful debater, the better wisecracker; Ebert had more tender feelings.

Flaum insisted on a set with a balcony; her stars sometimes had their backs to the camera as they looked at the film clips, which, all agree, were central to the show’s success. She forbade them to wear ties; sometimes she would take them shopping. She demanded a simple yes or no response to each film; for the first year, she also refused to let Ebert include the small and subtitled films he championed. “We had to get viewers to trust us—that we weren’t going to be public television, off in the stratosphere discussing a foreign film that they didn’t care about,” she says. (Once the show was established, Flaum relented on the egghead films.) She also decreed that a trained canine, Spot the Wonderdog, later Daisy and Sparky, would jump onto the balcony to introduce the Dog of the Week. The dog sent the message, says Flaum, “that we weren’t discussing the cinema; we were talking about the movies.”

By the end of the first season, Ebert and Siskel were on more than 100 public television stations. In 1978 the show, renamed Sneak Previews, moved to PBS. It aired in 180 markets and was, according to Television Week, “the highest-rated entertainment show in the history of public broadcasting.” Stations in New York and Los Angeles picked it up, which put an end to the question “Who are these Midwest bumpkins to talk to us about film?”

PBS decided to cash in by syndicating it commercially, Ebert says, but “they wanted to continue to pay us PBS salaries.” At WTTW they had been making in the lower three figures per show. They ended their time at PBS making about $87,000 each per season, with no share of the profits. By then they were both represented by the same lawyer and agent, Don Ephraim, reducing the chances for a split. Ebert recalls Siskel warning, “If we have separate agents, it’ll end in bloodshed.”

Ephraim thought he had a done deal with WTTW/PBS when the network hired a Hollywood lawyer who presented an unacceptable deal and told Ephraim his clients could “take it or leave it.” He took the show to Joe Antelo, an executive with what became the Tribune Entertainment Company. Antelo eventually offered each of them $125,000 plus 10 percent of the show’s profits. He sold the deal to his boss by arguing that the clips cost nothing—the studios happily gave them for free—and Ebert and Siskel starred in and wrote the show themselves. For the first 13-week cycle, Antelo signed 87 stations and quickly sold out the advertising. The next cycle he more than doubled the number of stations. Six months later, he says, it was a major hit. That year, 1982, with the show’s name changed to At the Movies, Antelo recalls, Ebert and Siskel made half a million dollars each.

Four years later, in 1986, they were ready to renew with Tribune Entertainment, but the man who was supposed to handle the details let the matter slide. “It was a big boo-boo,” says Antelo. Jamie Bennett, a former WBBM-TV executive who had moved to Disney’s Buena Vista, offered the pair $1 million each, twice what they were getting at Tribune Entertainment. Siskel & Ebert & the Movies became Buena Vista’s first syndicated show. Along with the name change came the switch to thumbs up and thumbs down, an idea that Ebert claims as his own.

The Tribune retaliated against Siskel, charging that it was a conflict of interest for him to work for Disney when the company also made movies that he would review. Ebert lobbied the Sun-Times’s editor to hire Siskel, and the paper made him an offer. “I don’t think Gene would ever have come to the Sun-Times. I think he just used that as leverage,” Ebert says. In the end, Siskel lost his movie critic’s title, kept a tie to the Tribune as a high-priced freelancer, and picked up other, more lucrative work, such as appearing regularly on CBS This Morning.

The two men really did disagree with each other. “There’s a line you don’t want to cross,” Flaum explains. “People are uncomfortable watching real enmity, real hostility, real anger. Every once in a while I’d say, ‘You know what? That was unpleasant. Let’s do it again with a little less heat.’”

As their careers blossomed, their economic interests converged, and they realized they needed each other. The hostility became more feigned than real. “It was just sport,” says Larry Dieckhaus. “They were like people fencing or sparring; they actually enjoyed it.”

While they would never be the sort of friends who would hang out at each other’s houses, Ebert says, “I loved him, and there were times when I hated him. There were times when he infuriated me, yet we were good friends.”
 

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