Not too many people can say they’ve lived their childhood dream. Through some dumb stroke of luck that I didn’t deserve in the slightest, I got to live mine twice: I appeared on two different versions of “At the Movies,” the modern update of my favorite show as a kid, “Siskel & Ebert.”
The best part about working on “At the Movies” was simply getting to interact with Roger Ebert, his wife Chaz, and with many of their longtime staffers. And the best part about interacting with the staffers were the stories they would tell about Gene and Roger.
Oh man: the stories.
Siskel and Ebert’s competitive rivalry was legendary — and a big key to their unique onscreen chemistry. They fought as ferociously off-camera as they did in the balcony, and the men and women who worked on the show would spin incredible tales about their hilariously intense feuds, arguments, and pranks. Last night, after I heard about Ebert’s passing, I emailed “At the Movies” producer David Plummer — who now works as producer and contributor for the television show “Windy City Live” — and begged him to share one of these great anecdotes with the world. Thankfully, he agreed. Here’s the story, straight from David:
One of my favorite things to do during the decade or so that I worked with Roger, was to just sit and listen to his stories. He was a master storyteller. Each week after we taped a show, we would all eat lunch together and have a meeting about the next week’s show. I especially loved it when he would talk about Gene Siskel. Here’s one of my favorites as I remember it being told:Roger and Gene were established celebrities at the time. Roger wrote something nice about one of Hollywood’s up and coming actresses. Soon after, he received a letter from the actress, thanking him for his kind words. She mentioned that she would be in town the following week and she would love to have dinner with him. She left her phone number.Roger, being single at the time, was feeling pretty good about himself. He began boasting about getting the letter from the starlet. Gene hears the joy in Roger’s voice and says, “That’s great Roger, but I’m sorry to disappoint you, because I wrote that letter.” Roger was irate and an argument erupted.A few weeks later, Gene walks into the office and asks Roger if he ever called the actress. Roger confused says, “Of course I didn’t Gene. Why would I call a number that you wrote down?”Gene says, “I was only kidding. I didn’t write that letter. I hope you didn’t throw it away.”There are dozens of these types of stories. They had a love/hate relationship and even though it didn’t always appear this way, there was more love than hate.