Opinion: In 2009, Roger Ebert wrote of his late partner in criticism, "Gene died 10 years ago on Feb. 20, 1999. He is in my mind almost every day."
Siskel and Ebert -- the use of their last names a badge of honor and mark of fondness rather than a formality -- became the best-known movie critics in the nation, maybe on the planet, when their Chicago TV show "Sneak Previews" moved to PBS in 1978. The show would go through many titles, but its thumbs-up, thumbs-down format remained as simple and addictive as Raisinets during a matinee.
There will never be another pair like them. Part of that is because the world has moved on, for good or for ill. In 1978, most of us still had five or so television channels, and even if we didn't watch regularly, we all knew Siskel and Ebert, the chubby guy and the skinny guy, the guy with glasses and the bald guy. Now there are hundreds of ways to get movie reviews -- blogs, Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb.com, online forums, alt-weeklies. A horror-movie buff can get his or her reviews from fellow gore freaks, a romantic can gravitate to sites that dissect rom-coms kiss by kiss.
When "Sneak Previews" began, the idea of two guys sitting in a fake theater arguing with each other was not just a novel setup, it was a real way to get a peek at the latest films and help decide what we wanted to see. We needed Siskel and Ebert. We still do, but we don't know it.
Any new Siskel and Ebert wouldn't make it past the casting directors anyway. In a 2009 blog post about his fellow critic, Ebert mentioned that Siskel was hired for his first TV job under the theory, "Don't hire someone because they look good on TV; hire them because they cover a beat and are the masters of it."
Can you even imagine that happening today? Look at your average sideline reporter on a football game or your local anchor. Do any of them look like people you know? Siskel and Ebert did. It helped make them credible, and it made us want to spend time with them. They were Chicagoans, not New Yorkers or Los Angelenos, and that helped too. They didn't look or sound like people who attended big social events or hung out on red carpets. They looked and sounded like your brothers-in-law, or maybe your neighbors, more comfortable at a Bulls game or a college film festival than at the Oscars.
Much has been made of Siskel and Ebert's sometimes snappy relationship. After Ebert died on Thursday, a YouTube video (Ebert-approved!) began to circulate. It showed the two fighting with each other as they struggled to record promos for their show.
"You know that for Gene, speech is a second language?" cracks Ebert when Siskel trips up.
"Roger's second language is, 'Yes, I'll have apple pie with my order,' " retorted Siskel.
"This is going on in heaven right now," wrote a YouTube commenter.
(Warning: Good-natured swearing in the video below.)
But Siskel and Ebert never let their disagreements get in the way of their work or their friendship. "If we were fighting -- get out of the room," Ebert wrote in the 2009 blog post. "But if we were teamed up against a common target, we were fatal."
The animated show "The Critic" once ran a skit in which Siskel and Ebert break up. Ebert is seen sitting alone on a teeter-totter, and Siskel looks sadly at a photo of another famed duo, Bert and Ernie. Of course they get back together in the end. What was Bert without Ernie? A teeter without its totter? It wasn't as much fun to just hear one critic pontificate from on high. It was way more entertaining to hear him forced to defend his views against someone who had a much different opinion.
Remembering Siskel just after he died in 1999, Ebert noted that his favorite sparring partner would always end his own interviews of movie stars or other celebrities by asking, "What do you know for sure?" Ebert went on to say that what he knew of Siskel was that he was "one of the smartest, funniest, quickest men I've ever known, and one of the best reporters. It was almost impossible to tell you anything that you didn't already know."
What do we know for sure about Siskel and Ebert, then? That their fantastic, easy chemistry came from a place that was real, not anything ordered up in a studio laboratory. That we might not have agreed with either one of them all the time, but we'd welcome the chance to pull up a stool at Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern and have a beer with them.
And now with Ebert gone, the balcony is closed forever.