For the first five years that we knew one another, Gene Siskel and I hardly spoke. Then it seemed like we never stopped. We began as film critics for the two morning papers in Chicago, both still in our 20s and eager to establish ourselves--preferably at the other's expense. When we were asked to work together on a TV show, we both said we'd rather do it with someone else. Anyone else.
At first the relationship on TV was edgy and uncomfortable. Our newspaper rivalry was always in the air between us. Gene liked to tell about the time he was taking a nap under a conference table at the television station, overheard a telephone conversation I was having with an editor, and scooped me on the story. I got scooped more than once; it really hurt in 1997 when he sat down to talk about the movies with Bill Clinton.
He considered himself a reporter as well as a critic, and he was one of the best I ever knew. It was typical of Gene that when he got interested in the Chicago Bulls, it wasn't just as a fan, but as an expert; he knew as much about the Bulls as most of the sportswriters who covered them. It was consistent with his reporter's orientation that some of his favorite films were documentaries, like "Hoop Dreams."
After his surgery in May 1998, his first public appearance was at a Bulls game. It was important to him that he be there. And it was typical of Gene's determination that he returned to the job as soon as he could. Two weeks after his surgery, he was watching movies on tape in his hospital room and phoning in his reviews to "Siskel & Ebert." Soon he was back in the show's balcony, and in print at the Tribune and TV Guide, and on the air at CBS.
Someone else might have taken a leave of absence then and there, but Gene worked as long as he could. Being a film critic was important to him. He liked to refer to his job as "the national dream beat," and say that in reviewing movies he was covering what people hoped for, dreamed about, and feared.
Because the movies could do such a powerful job of reaching into the minds and emotions of audiences, he took it personally when they disappointed him--when they were lazy and stupid. He told me about a proud moment as a father: He asked one of his daughters how she'd liked a movie, and she told him that, well, she didn't. "Some kids think they're supposed to be polite and just say they liked a film," he said, "but I've always told my children it's important to make up your own mind."
He was ferociously honest in his opinions. He didn't care about seeming fashionable. When he picked "Babe: Pig in the City" as the best movie of 1998, some people thought it was a strange choice. I didn't. The movie was on my top ten list, too, and I knew why Gene admired it: It was original, it was trying to do something new, it had been overlooked in the flood of more mainstream product, and it had something worthwhile to say. It stood for what he stood for.
When Gene saw a movie he really admired, he almost glowed. Toward the end of the screening of "Fargo," he walked over to me in the dark and whispered, "This is why I go to the movies." When he saw a movie he hated, he liked to suggest that filmmakers ask themselves this question: "Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?"
Gene kept private about the state of his health in the months after his surgery. I understood why. He wanted to protect his family from the attention that might result. He wanted the focus to remain on his film criticism, and although it was obvious sometimes that he walked slowly and was in pain, I never once heard him complain. He carried on with a bravery it is hard to imagine.
We did the TV show together for 24 years. It was a strange format: Two ordinary-looking guys from Chicago, sitting in a balcony talking about the movies. One question we were asked, again and again, was: "Do you really hate each other?" There were days at the beginning of our relationship when the honest answer sometimes was "yes." It was unnatural for two men to be rivals six days of the week and sit down together on the seventh. But over the years respect grew between us, and it deepened into friendship and love.