Their partnership ended prematurely more than a dozen years ago, but Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s names remain synonymous with film criticism. Their half-hour movie review show, started in 1975 at Chicago public television station WTTW, nationally syndicated by the Tribune Company and Disney, kept alive by fans and a growing online archive, inspired — and continues to inspire — an entire generation of film critics. Now Josh Schollmeyer, an executive editor at Playboy, has written the definitive oral history of “Siskel & Ebert,” entitled “Enemies, A Love Story.” Awed by the massive 25,000-word project and wildly entertained by some of the more outrageous anecdotes about Siskel and Ebert’s poor behavior toward one another, I reached out to Schollmeyer to see if he’d want to make a brief oral history of his own (email interviews count as oral history, right?) about why he took on this enormous undertaking and what he learned from it. Here’s what he had to say.
What inspired you to tell the oral history of “Siskel & Ebert?”
The big-picture answer: my hometown roots. In Chicago, we’re always cast as the city of big shoulders, not a cultural epicenter in the same way as New York and LA. “Siskel & Ebert,” however, changed that perception. They made the coasts pay attention to us. For 25 years, they were the country’s preeminent cultural arbiters. And in doing so, they became as important to the city as Oprah and Michael Jordan. The smaller-picture answer: About two years ago, I found myself at dinner with Michael Phillips, A.O. Scott and a couple of longtime producers of the show — both pre- and post-Gene and Roger. Their stories about the two “boys,” as staffers called Gene and Roger, were incredible and hilarious, and since the show seemed near its end, I thought it worthwhile to start compiling all of these memories, as they were too entertaining and important to be left to impromptu dinner conversation.
Many of your contributors have their own theories as to what made Siskel and Ebert such a popular team. What do you think was the key to their success?
Biology. No two people were ever better suited to appear on television across from one another. I’m convinced their DNA was hardwired to do so.
Was there anything you found particularly surprising during your research?
In hindsight, it seems crazy that I didn’t come to this conclusion. But many people, Robert Feder (Chicago’s wise media columnist) and Thea Flaum (the show’s influential early producer) most elegantly, pointed out that they believed the reason Roger has been so open about his health struggles is because Gene was so silent about his — even to Roger, who by all counts, really, truly never understood that Gene was dying.
Your piece doesn’t contain new interviews with Ebert — did you try to interview him or did you prefer to have the oral history come from the perspective of the rest of the production team who witnessed this unusual partnership?
Roger kindly gave me his blessing, which opened all kinds of doors. And to be honest, as soon as I settled upon using footnotes from their Letterman appearances, interviews and own writing, I realized this primary-source material spoke more about the moment than could ever be said now. Plus, to me at least, it was interesting to put the focus on the people who had never really spoken publicly about the show or Gene and Roger’s relationship. Their insights are what make the piece so revealing and honest.
As chronicled in the oral history, many other critics have tried the same format, with middling results. Everyone you speak to insists the format itself is solid, even without Gene and Roger. But is it? Do you think there could ever be a successful “At the Movies”-style show with other hosts?
I think the more interesting question is if Gene and Roger would still be successful today had they not been felled by such tragic illnesses. Could their chemistry overcome the fractured and tumultuous state of the contemporary media and the fact that it’s hard to figure how weekly half-hour syndicated programs can continue much longer (if they aren’t dead already)? In my mind, they would be the only ones who could do it. But it still seems like a tough sell given how much everything has changed the last 2-3 years in particular. For anything akin to “Siskel & Ebert” to succeed today it would need to be much more immediate and cross-platform, which Ebert, to his credit, is doing quite successfully today with his web and Twitter presence.
Do you have a favorite “Siskel & Ebert” review?
Some of my favorite “Siskel & Ebert” moments actually came outside of the show — their Letterman appearances, their Stern appearances, Gene’s guest role on “The Larry Sanders Show” when he punched out John Ritter. Stern, in particular, was able to tease out their tension, love and dislike for each other in a way no one else could — in a much different, more essential way than their arguments on “Siskel & Ebert” ever did.
The Disney-produced “At the Movies” went off the air in 2010; the “Ebert Presents At the Movies” is on hiatus for the foreseeable future. If the show never returns, what is its legacy?
This is probably hard for all the post-Siskel hosts to read, but personally, I believe the show’s legacy will always be Gene and Roger sitting in the balcony jabbing at one another. Anything beyond that will be a footnote at best. They were the show, and they’ll be what and who people always remember.